revew: Selina Thompson – Chewing the Fat
Chewing the Fat/
first posted 7/12/14
Last night, I saw Selina Thompson‘s Chewing the Fat, in Derby Theatre’s Studio space. Unfortunately, it was the last night of a pretty wide ranging tour, so I can’t urge you to go see it. Hopefully, it will re-emerge somewhere in the future, and if it does, I urge you to go see it.
I’m calling Chewing the Fat a portrait. At the start, or rather before the pre-show segues into the start, ‘This isn’t the show, I’m much more professional in the show’, Thompson lists the things her show is not. ‘Categorically’, Thompson announces, this show is not about us, or how we feel about our bodies. This show is Thompson’s, about her and hers.
Thompson commits herself fully and bodily to her performance. The most grotesque moment saw Thompson crouched on the floor, deboning, and then eating, a whole chicken, forcing the pieces into her mouth, gagging through it and carrying on. The ordeal of this borders on endurance art, going on in silence long enough for any humour to die. It is a spectacle like much of the show is spectacular: the portrait is filled with images, smaller portraits making up the whole: Selina Thompson, smeared with cottage cheese; dripping with rice pudding; cavorting with biscuit crumbs.
As Thompson relates her complicated relationship with food, fatness and body image, the performance navigates comedy, compulsion and the grotesque. Simultaneously entertaining and devastating, this is a portrait of a subject who is no single thing, and the show reflects that. There were plenty of moments where the audience were experiencing conflicting responses. Gasps of revulsion came in chorus with giggles.
By far the most affecting moments were those where, like the beginning of the show, the performance acknowledged itself. The spectacle of the show lifts, and the reality of it comes forward. The theatrical confessionals of the show suddenly find themselves tied to the truth of the woman in front of us. This is a self-portrait, and in these moments, the self becomes real. Selina Thompson is no longer a character, but a woman who plays one, she does these things herself, transforms herself into the spectacle, whilst sharing with us what she has done, and what of her self she has transformed into this performance. There was power in realising that.
It’s remarkable that a show containing such confrontational, disturbing images felt at the same time totally non-threatening, because this show wasn’t a confrontation, but a sharing. As we were promised, this show wasn’t about us, it was about the woman in front of us. As vulnerable as Thompson made herself, we were never made to experience the same vulnerability, and we were never held to account, never called out to be in any way implicit in the mechanisms that created her vulnerability. As a result, we worry more for her than for ourselves.
And in the end, leaving, I don’t feel as if there’s been any attempt to steer me in any direction. I’ve not been told how to feel, just shown how the woman in front of us has felt. That was refreshing. I was a little lost on what to think initially, because there was nothing I’d been told to think to react to. I enjoyed seeing a piece of theatre that doesn’t make me a part of it, that doesn’t push a message. Just presents a portrait. And we are totally free to make up our own minds about what that portrait says to us.
Something which as I write it I realise is rare: I didn’t want any more from this show. Usually I’ll leave the theatre thinking ‘if only they’d done this, explored that’, but Chewing the Fat last night felt entirely complete as a piece of performance. Nothing felt overdone or excessive, and at the same time nothing felt underexplored. I left feeling satiated.
A fantastic piece of personal, visually rich storytelling theatre. Regardless of whether this particular show tours near you again, I’d highly recommend you keep an eye out for whatever she’s up to next.
As a footnote, I want to acknowledge how I came to find out about Selina Thompson, which was in the wake of the (successful) Exhibit B protests at the Barbican. I read Thompson’s account of her experience of the ‘Exhibit’, and had to find out more about what she did. You can find her account here.