The Kitchen by Arnold Wesker

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The kitchen, a ‘realist text’ is written by Arnold Wesker, a ‘naturalistic writer’. These terms have been used for many years now in conjunction with theatre. Their meanings have changed and very easily overlap with each other, just as the above quotes suggest; because of this the task of performing in the form of realism as opposed to naturalism is impossible.

This suggests that in performance there is a real possibility of creating the desired effect without having to justify whether it is naturalistic or indeed realistic.

Performing a section of the kitchen requires at least a basic understanding of these terms. Arnold Wesker gives a lengthy explanation of what he wants to see on stage, he goes to great detail to explain his restaurant and the people in it: ‘The quality of food here is not so important as the speed with which it is served (Wesker 1960).

Wesker continues to give character notes on each of his main 15 characters that are also accompanied by specific actions for many of them.

Now directors, especially in the ever more contemporary theatre world we live in, will be tempted to ignore or change these notes to create their own aesthetic on stage. For me this would be criminal. When experimenting with the actions each character is given, by means of mime, possible cooking methods are extremely difficult to generate especially differentiating between actions.

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Extra research is needed to look at exactly how each dish is made in a real kitchen. Once we as performers have our own certain routines set out it is clear we need the correct amount of space to operate correctly.

The Kitchen Arnold Wesker

At this point we were fitted into positions within a given set. Already there is a performance in itself without even speaking a word of Wesker’s text, there were 6 people on stage miming actions with 3 others (the waitresses) coming in and out and occasionally tangling with these procedures. What are being produced are individual movements that form a type of group dance, the collaboration of the individuals fit together perfectly. Now does this portray a real life kitchen or is this just a version Wesker’s imaginary kitchen?

Take a still position in a restaurant’s kitchen anywhere in Great Britain or of Europe, take away the sound of voice or music, take away even the food, what you are left with is of course a wonderful sequence of movements. In each kitchen there is a negotiating of space where usually several cooks and chef’s work in restricted areas. Wesker in his directions creates the bones of a kitchen, from then on it is just building on that. John Dexter directed this for the Royal Court Theatre 1961 ‘like a superb juggler, he keeps a huge cast weaving, reacting, colliding, in a faultless choreography. (Bernard Levin 1961). This is what we wanted to aspire to. The character notes become important in the next stage of our process. We down sized the cast and set because we did not have enough performers. Down staging the set as well was simply to attempt to keep with the atmosphere of a space challenged kitchen. We each had a main character to reference to. Ones who had particular accents were performed with an accent nearest to it. I played Peter ‘boisterous, aggressive, too merry, and yet good-natured’, I tried to perform exactly these qualities.

Now this was obviously to become part of the routine of the cooking that was already fixed in my mind. This where a problem lies, a performer must show a character whilst still performing in this dance like sequence. Thankfully Peter’s character holds what I took as a ‘get out clause’ by this I mean Peter’s ‘… forced laugh, pronounced “Hya hya hya”. ‘ (Wesker, A. 1961) This outrageous character trait allowed me to cover up any slip of technique in either showing the character or miming the cooking. It was so idiosyncratic that it would become normal to the kitchen and the spectators also.

Peter sings a song also that is said to have a “maniacal tone” which is part of the whole kitchen atmosphere. Maniacal is something that is a clear desire for Wesker in this play. The popular representation of chefs and cooks even now is that they are all slightly insane and putting them in a kitchen excites this factor. Wesker even makes testimony to this within the text of ‘the kitchen’ when Dimitri comments: ‘Listen, you put a man in the plate room all day… what else there is for him to do – he wants to fight. ‘ As a performer this theme is certainly achievable just by use of voice.

Varying a regular pace and volume level is just two ways in which to change the way lines are said to sound more crazy. However this we found was no where near enough to produce an atmosphere that was right for this performance. We looked at everything the pace of the movements, the sounds that are created through mime. We even added to mime real cooking utensils; this gave another variable that could be affected. The final performance consisted of these utensils that acted as an instrument that could be manipulated to yield a more rampant effect.

The bashing of a saucepan with a wooden spoon holds a certain quality that can be used to build a beat. We had already decided to use a tape recording of an oven fumigator to set a permanent noise that would indeed be heard in a real kitchen. Dexter used similar techniques in his direction of the play. So now we have a background buzz that is a constant burden to performers and audience alike, we have an instrumental effect with the use of empty utensils and we have also got a movement sequence that involves the whole cast working as one.

An explanation of a realist text would seemingly be nothing like the previous sentence but as the process of rehearsing The Kitchen it is clear that this is a quite intelligible way to go about it. Despite all the rehearsal techniques indicating a contemporary dance to unorthodox instruments, a bit like a performance of ‘Stomp’, the aesthetic on stage was clearly natural to us. We felt the general look was of a kitchen in full flow. We had the power to change the intensity and lunacy of the action and could therefore play with it to fit in line with the text. The only free space in his kitchen is at the very front of the stage… this is where they come if they want to talk. Anyone speaking to them from the back of the kitchen has to shout… ‘ Bamber Gascoigne talks here about another production of The Kitchen but is very relevant to our own production. There is a clear one-conversation-at-a-time problem that has to be addressed when introducing the text to the movement. The oven sounds drowned out mumbling or whisper as in a real kitchen, so we did this and it looked normal.

This is not a usual concept in theatre and yet was very effective in this production. The only clear speech an audience should here is the written text and that is achievable by using the space front stage as a conversation area just as Gascoigne points out but also to incorporate more of the shouted conversation. The kitchen area of a restaurant is full of shouting and cursing, orders are lost and this causes stress. As a group this is the most exciting point we investigated in performance. Wesker says ‘The whole tempo of work is speeded up suddenly’ this is what we chose to look at.

We began with the mild argument between Peter and his illegitimate girlfriend Monique at the end of part one and continued through the rush of orders. Of course Monique and Peter began front stage so they could be heard and seen clearly, this is an important part of the “weak storyline” that The Kitchen has. Most of what we see in terms of a story is where Monique and Peter are flirting or arguing. The rest of the plot seems to consist of work related talk. Whilst the exchange goes on we were keen to make sure the rest of the kitchen continued work as normal.

The cooks continued their sequence and the isolated conversation was highlighted purely because it was away from the general flow of energy. As they rejoin the rest of the kitchen the energy increases very quickly, the change is instigated by our three waitresses. They are on their toes and shouting out orders which of course the cooks have to respond to vocally and physically. There were high intensity moments, for instance: Violet: I’ve never worked like this before, never never. Peter: Too old, too old my sweetheart. Go home old woman – for the young this work – go home.

At this point we used our performance time to show a rehearsal technique, and carried on performing but as improvisation reacting to waitress orders. The more orders the faster and more frantic it got. The Kitchen is a text that is as much a compositional piece as an accurate representation of a fully operational kitchen and we tried to show this. The character’s and their personal description given by Wesker is important but not nearly as much as his comments and detailing of atmosphere and general running of the ‘Trivoli’ restaurant.

Obviously what our group created was working progress and to improve it would be to add more detail and choreography to everything including set and character exchanges. Our task was to create a realist performance, ‘A play should be written in which people arrive, go away, have dinner, talk about the weather, play cards. Life must be exactly as it is and people as they are. ‘ (Chekhov, A. ). The problems we occurred are summed up with Wesker’s comment: ‘the artist is dealing with what is absurd in reality in a naturalistic form’ (Wesker, A. 1965)

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The Kitchen by Arnold Wesker. (2019, Dec 07). Retrieved from

The Kitchen by Arnold Wesker
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