Birdy didn’t know quite what she was getting herself into when she agreed to attend FOOD, an Edinburgh International Festival event – which turned out to be a sensory experience and-a-half.
Arriving at the table
My first awareness of Geoff Sobelle‘s FOOD was when the image of him at a dinner table covered in spaghetti showed up on my Facebook feed. I thought ‘that looks interesting’. Then, I read it was a ‘dinner party’ with piqued my interest even more.
I still didn’t know what I was actually letting self in for, but rest assured you should not expect to be fed at FOOD – so, definitely eat first.
Full disclosure now: ever since I got out of FOOD last night – and to be completely honest, even before I got out – I was thinking to myself ‘how the hell am I going to review this? How much do I give away? This is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before‘.
I’m just going to go for it. And there will be spoilers.
I filmed this TikTok as I entered the room, and then as the audience were getting settled into their seats.
I was excited, because I had a feeling this was was going to be a show I wouldn’t forget in a hurry: I wasn’t wrong.
The table is set
Everyone either finds their seats in the audience, or is guided to their special seat at the performance table – which is properly set with plates, knives and forks. I sit at the table.
A man appears; it’s Geoff! He’s pottering about, beginning to set the scene for things to come. With the white tablecloth and relatively formal attire, the whole thing has an atmosphere of a fine dining establishment – but, surreally, on a stage.
A red table runner sits in the middle of the massive table, and he ‘lights’ a battery powered candle, before going to the other side and beginning to pull the runner forward, so the candle gets to the middle.
It falls over. That’s okay, it’s battery powered, these things happen. Geoff climbs up on the table to set it right, before continuing to pull the runner towards him.
Then Geoff introduces a guided meditation on food, getting us first to imagine ourselves in the womb, with all our needs taken care of, before going even further back when we’re nothing but cells, to developing eyes, fins, legs, climbing out the sea, living in trees, eating mangos and bananas etc. up to present day.
It makes me think: just who – or even what – the hell are we? That thought is a recurring theme of the night for me.
It’s an interesting but gentle way to start a show, and eases the audience into things. Everyone’s got their eyes shut, so no-one notices how the candle gets swapped – but when we open them again, the candle is real.
And, as Geoff starts pulling the – now very real and flickering -candle from the middle to the table towards him at the other end, of course it falls over again. Planned? I suspect so.
Will you be having wine?
Geoff put his waiter’s apron on and began wandering around the guests asking if they’ll be having wine tonight; most of them said ‘yes’. When asked, I requested water “if that’s possible”, and was told ‘of course, but that it’ll be a while’.
It never came.
Some choice guests were encouraged to talk about their wine, and asked what it made them think of. One person said a memory, another oddly said a plastic factory, whilst a third said hiking in a forest she was in at some point in time. Not missing a beat, Geoff asked: “Was it next to a plastic factory?”.
I was offered a menu. I took it, and inside were instructions to begin talking to the person across the table from me – yes, across the massive table – about a dish I was thinking of. Others would be talking at the same time. I was giving a microphone, and I began talking about Greek lamb pasta.
I started going through how I prepare it, but forget some of the steps. I ended by describing how it’s served. People were paying attention by now. Geoff smiled. I felt a rad self-conscious and was glad that was over.
It all feels quite nice and intimate, and I enjoy hearing other people talk, despite having had to do it myself. Everyone’s started to feel… dare I say it, comfortable? Settled? Yes.
Geoff then went around asking people to pick items off a menu – I suspect in a specific order, especially after a while when he was telling them which numbers to read out – and they included things like ‘a bowl of cherry tomatoes’, ‘rib eye steak’ and a ‘baked potato’.
For the potato, he assumed his place at the head of the table, got a bucket of dirt and poured it onto said table. Added some seeds, poured some water, waited a little bit, and then dug out the potato. Got an audience member to hold it on a plate, then got his lighter out for the heat part. Got it into a sheet of foil.
He passed it to the man who’d been holding the plate, two seats down from me, and I thought he was faking the foil being hot when he was told to pass it down the table – however, the potato was HOT and I got a shock. Turned out it was an actual baked potato – or, at least it was later.
One woman requested eggs, and was served raw eggs in a bowl.
Another person suggested fish, and this was when things got a bit more showy. Geoff put his skiing goggles and puffer jacket on. The lights went down. What looked like dry ice started emerging from part of the table near the middle/opposite end from Geoff, and Geoff had to make his way there, freezing in the cold.
He went fishing via a hole in the table! He caught a fish, and it was a flappy one – the kind normal people get for their cats, and the same kind my monitor lizard loves playing with. The fish flapped on the plate.
After this part of the show was done, Geoff went around with a large bucket collecting everyone’s wine. Some fellow table members got wise to this quite fast, and made the most of the rest of their wine whilst they had it.
Whilst he bucketed the wine and other food that had been ‘served’, he spoke to each person, along the lines of ‘Thank you. Thank you so much. Come again. Good luck. Trust no-one. I’ll miss you. You were my favourite. Thank you.”
It was somewhere around this point that I put my hands on the table, and noticed it felt… lumpy.
The astonishing feast
Geoff had gathered some of the food – including the steak and bowl of eggs – at his place at the head of the table. There was a bowl of apples. Geoff started off eating a single apple, the way you usually would. He took a bite, then another bite, then another. And another. He started picking up the pace.
He started devouring that apple. Then he started on another. He might have had three, I lost track because his feeding frenzy was a tad disconcerting as the whole audience watched him eat in a slightly uncomfortable silence. He was making pig noises by now. It was like a man possessed.
He started on more foods. Tomatoes. Three bowls of rice, which I know by looking more closely that that was some clever trickery – which reassures me that some of the gluttonous, horrific and astonishing feast wasn’t all real, and more sleight of hand (or mouth?).
The audience watch on incredulous, amused, flabbergasted, disgusted, and still in that uncomfortable silence, with the only real noise being Geoff’s mouth. If anyone was hungry before, they certainly weren’t now.
He consumes all of the salad and vegetables, makes the carrots disappear. The full block of celery he somehow shoved down his throat? I wish I knew.
The raw eggs were consumed, with fingers being licked in a frenzy as scoops of raw egg finds its way to his mouth. By the time he gets to the steak – which I don’t think is actually steak, I suspect charred seedless watermelon – he’s consuming two bottles of wine and chowing down like there’s no tomorrow.
By the time he finishes, the bottles of wine are completely empty and he’s lying on his back on the table, burping, completely satiated. It’s hard to sum up the feelings I went through watching this, apart from I’d never seen anything quite like it, and I’m not sure I want to again.
What a mindfuck. Thanks, Geoff.
What even are we, anyway?
Geoff gathers himself, somehow, then proceeds to drag the entire tablecloth off the table, showing nothing but dirt underneath. Dirt and spoons!
That’s why the table felt lumpy. We’re encouraged to feel the dirt with our hands. Geoff gets back onto the table, and a buffalo is introduced. Then two. Then three, being dug up and they make their way around.
What happens next is a journey of scale and beginnings, as things begin to rise from the soil in a magical, transfixing way. The tractor comes out, the buffalo disappear into the dirt – and I’m sad. We’re given little buildings and trucks to pass along the dirt table.
Things start to happen, and as they do, one audience member is made to read out what I’m assuming only she can hear, which is a list of foods as more and more food becomes available to us – Worcester sauce is on the list! She keeps talking, and talking, occasionally missing words, bemused.
This monologue and her very real reactions are quite sweet to watch, but at the same time I’m glad it’s not me. It goes on for quite some time, with eventually skyscrapers rising out of the dirt.
As things rise out of the dirt, and others have been buried, it makes me wonder what else could get buried underneath that massive dirt table. Well, Dear Reader, if you attend this show, you’ll be sure to find out.
It feels like quite a profound way to end the show, and I also feel like I’ve been on a journey having only been sat at a dinner table this entire time. I love shows like this, that not only get a reaction out of me, but make me think, too.
What was it that Bill & Ted said? We’re nothing but dust in the wind, dudes. Well, this was more like dirt in the wind, but I’m going with it.
As my first introduction to Geoff Sobelle, FOOD did not go lightly on me. I’d describe this as a sensory experience and-a-half, where your body is not fed, but your mind certainly is. As are your nerves in some places.
This show is in parts profound, intellectual and meaningful – and also shocking, humourous, visceral and even, at times, silly. It’s one of the most memorable shows I’ve experienced at a festival, and I’ve got the feeling it’s going to stay with me for quite some time.
Geoff seems to be a master of illusion, isn’t afraid to take his time or get dirty, and certainly put on one helluva show. I’d love to know how some of it worked, because at times I’d be watching thinking ‘how the hell did he do that?‘ but then, at the same time, it would take away some of the mystery.
A Review of ‘FOOD’ – Edinburgh International Festival 2023