Gob Squad's 'Kitchen' at the Soho Theatre
Time Out pokes around Gob Squad’s ‘Kitchen’ to find out how it connects to Warhol’s original vision and the changes of the 1960s
Not many people have seen Andy Warhol’s ‘Kitchen’, the 1965 film intended to be a vehicle for Edie Sedgwick. She was one of Warhol’s cohorts, the subject of the Velvet Underground’s ‘Femme Fatale’, probably of Dylan’s ‘Just Like a Woman’ and undeniably of the 2006 film ‘Factory Girl’.
Descriptions of ‘Kitchen’ make it sound typically chaotic. As well as a vehicle for Sedgwick, Warhol specifically wanted it to be set in a white kitchen. Ronald Tavel’s script shows Sedgwick, Roger Trudeau, Rene Ricard, Electrah and Donald Lyons drinking and spilling coffee, burning themselves, eating layer cake and talking about sex. Sedgwick had trouble learning her lines and copies of the script were hidden all over the set. She tried to cover up her memory lapses by sneezing, which provides a valuable streak of comedy. In a flamboyant tribute, Norman Mailer wrote, ‘I suspect that a hundred years from now people will look at “Kitchen” and say “Yes that is the way it was in the late ’50s, early ’60s in America. That’s why they had the war in Vietnam”.’
When Gob Squad, a company made up of British and German artists, set out to make a live film tribute to ‘Kitchen’, they were not deterred by their initial inability to get hold of a copy of the film. According to company member Bastian Trost, Mailer’s quote had more influence on the Gob Squad piece than the film, which halfway through rehearsals by some complicated machinations they finally got to see. ‘Seeing the film had,’ says Trost, ‘a smaller impact on the show than we thought it would. What was really important was Norman Mailer saying that people will watch this film in a hundred years time and understand the ’60s.’
Gob Squad’s ‘Kitchen (You’ve Never Had it so Good)’, which I saw at the Project Arts Theatre in Dublin, turns out to be touching and often hilarious. The company struggles to get behind the mythology of the ’60s, to understand what people drank in those days, how they spoke and how they treated each other. Did they understand that they were on the brink of seismic changes? It makes you realise how elusive the past is. Even Gob Squad’s title mixes Harold MacMillan’s famous 1950s observation with Warhol’s 1960s film. Berit Strumpf explains that they wanted to go ‘on a quest of exploring how it would be if we had lived then and also how different the view of the world was then. And to bring these two times together from the point of view of now trying to be then.’
The miked actors, all wearing heavy eye make-up, inhabit a tiny kitchen behind a large screen which separates them from the audience and on which their performances are projected. On the night I saw it, the piece was performed by Stumpf, Trost, Sarah Thom and Sharon Smith, but they are part of a company of eight who can all play any of the parts. As they improvise, they draw on their knowledge of the film and the research they have done into the period. So Stumpf is quite shocked when Trost asks her to make him a cup of coffee, saying he likes it ‘hot, sweet and black, just like my men’. His request, based on his belief that the women were more subservient then than now, clashes with her view that the seeds of feminism were being sown in ’60s New York. Performers from 2008 self-consciously attempt to hang out in a ’60s fashion.
Apparently the performance I saw was more concerned with the rise of feminism than is usual. Strumpf explains that ‘one of the things that we often talk about is that we have a suitcase and we are free to choose and develop any of the ideas in that suitcase’.
Gob Squad has always been interested in exploring the borderline between performance and reality. The company members blur those boundaries by improvising throughout. But they were impressed by how hard it is to distinguish in Warhol’s film between when the actors are saying Tavel’s lines and when they are being themselves. Warhol was playing with the idea of reality TV more than 40 years ago. In ‘Sleep’, for instance, John Giorno is apparently fast asleep for six hours, just as Tilda Swinton slept in a glass box in the Serpentine Gallery. While Swinton slept for real, ‘Sleep’ is actually on a loop of eight minutes – so not quite as real as one first thought.
The company has a history of involving members of the audience in its performances. Once they waylaid people who happened to be passing by the theatre in which they were playing and asked them to come and take part. One volunteer in ‘Kitchen’ ends up lying in bed in a tribute to ‘Sleep’. Someone else is asked to sit as if taking a screen test. And a third is given a headset and requested – in a fashion that is sometimes used in verbatim theatre – to repeat the improvised dialogue that he hears through his headphones. So Smith and Trost are improvising with each other through the medium of someone else. Although audience participation remains a dreaded prospect for most theatregoers, the performers choose carefully and the volunteers are clearly up for it and provide an extra layer of reality. They make the real performers seem phoney.
The company has now been going for 14 years. In 1994, a group of Germans came from Gieben to Nottingham Trent University on a cultural exchange. ‘We fell in love with the girls that came over,’ says founder member Thom. ‘They were different from us because they had read lots of books.’
‘For us,’ counters Stumpf, ‘it was the other way round. We were amazed that the British students had already made shows. And they called themselves artists. We were trained to think you had to study before you could do your own work.’
Gob Squad’s ‘Kitchen (You’ve Never Had it So Good)’ is playing at the Soho Theatre from July 21
- Add your comment to this feature