Midnight Soup

Leo Burtin came to Waterside Arts Centre in Sale with Midnight Soup, an intimate performance for twelve centred around the preparation and sharing of a soup – Midnight Soup – that has traditionally brought people together.  The table is set, place names are in position, and Leo opens his grandmother’s diary from 2006.  What unfolds over the next two hours is his grandmother’s story, a story in which she chose exactly when and where to end her life.

Leo:  Because my grandmother is one of those people who taught me how to cook and the kitchen was the room in the house where we lived, it’s a gigantic influence, so there was just no other way to tell the story.  It became really obvious that this piece about cultural identity, that was going to involve food, could start with me and where I come from and my family’s story.

The shared experience of chopping vegetables – courgette, pepper, broccoli, mushrooms, onions, garlic – and discussing table rules, quickly creates a mutual bond.  The diaries include the tiniest memories – weather, bird names, food.  Slowly, for the diary entries are unemotional, the character of Leo’s grandmother evolves, as does the very real sense of place.

Leo:  I’m from Lorraine, which is a funny area.  It’s an area where there’s been both world wars, on the front line, and that’s significant in my family.   Growing up there were questions of memory and this duty of remembering is really prominent in the area.  The first ever show I wrote was commissioned in Verdun, about memory and duty to remember what happened as a way to move forward, and that subtly makes it’s way into this show as well.

The structure of the play works well.  Starting with the detail of one person’s life and death, it expands to include much bigger issues.

Leo:  It’s my grandmother, it’s my family, it’s her diary, but it’s also become a totemic figurehead that from a storytelling view is a device that hangs those bigger pictures.  It starts from a personal, minute, tiny detail, and from the soup we end with ‘what’s our care system like’ or ‘where do we stand as a society around the choices that are available to us when we die’ – those much bigger questions.  I’m really interested starting with the really personal and opening up a much bigger conversation.  Some of the most successful pieces I have seen have done that.

Ultimately this is an invitation, and in many ways this is both the greatest strength and the greatest risk of this performance.  The invitation is for the audience to come forward and discuss their own views and experiences.  Certainly Leo creates an environment of trust and openness.  It is up to the audience to do what they want with the invitation.

Leo:  I think there’s a bunch of choices that audience members can make as to how much they choose to interact with this.  There are a lot of invitations in it, to think about particular things or talk about particular things.   Whether or not you’ll respond to that invitation is your choice, and of course it shapes the piece in a different way depending on what choices audiences make.  That’s what makes the piece.  Regardless of what choices people make, the work happens.  Midnight Soup doesn’t exist, it couldn’t exist, without people around that table. 

The production has a wonderful pace.  In the room, the pace is slowed by the communal preparation of food.  Yet at the same time, the manner of Leo’s grandmother’s death hangs over the table, continually raising questions.  One question that keeps coming back is why do we talk so rarely about suicide in older people?

Leo:  Death, ageing and memory are themes that seep through the work that I make and always have.  One of my colleagues said to me that a statistic that’s not talked about is that older people are more likely to complete suicide than any other group.  We talk about younger men, but we don’t talk about older people.  So it became really apparent that was something I wanted to talk about. 

But Leo works hard to ensure that the environment is safe and well constructed.  The audience may provide their stories, or they may choose not to.  Each time will be different.  Each performance will address different issues relating to the themes Leo develops.

Leo:  You can choose to actively take part in the conversation and talk to your neighbours.  You could choose to interrupt me and ask questions.  But there’s also a level of interaction where all you’re doing is chopping vegetables.  Also, the tablecloth is made out of paper and from the beginning of the show there’s invitations to write on it.  So you could interact with it on your own, if you don’t feel comfortable talking or putting yourself out.  There’s ways for you to interact without anyone else knowing; you’re interacting with the artwork.

Ultimately this is a fascinating, intimate and very personal piece of theatre.  The dialogue is carefully constructed to develop an invitation to which you can respond in whatever way you wish.  There are fascinating avenues to explore, and the vehicle, preparing the soup, is perfect for this.  As with any meal, the same recipe can produce very different results.


Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

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