bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company’s The Laden Table is a risqué but honest look into contemporary Australian familial life and that which divides us. In an era where religious differences are once again at the forefront of the news cycle and public conversations, The Laden Table examines how these perceptions of one another trickle down to the so-called comfort of our family dinner tables.
The Fishman Family are an Eastern Suburbs Jewish family taking their seats at the table for a particularly special breaking of the Yom Kippur fast meal as their eldest daughter, Ruth (Jessica Paterson) has just returned home from a trip to Israel. The journey has certainly removed Ruth from the Sydney Eastern Suburbs bubble and exposed her to the harsh realities of life for those in Israel and in neighbouring countries. Working in a hospital in Haifa she becomes acutely aware of the fact that while her people may often be the targets, they are also at times the perpetrators. Working in the Emergency Department, seeing so many mothers losing children, and realising what life is like for all those living in the area, left her scarred and questioning her life lessons.
The Ka’adan Family, a Western Suburbs Muslim family, are also taking their seats at the dinner table to celebrate Eid. They too are welcoming back their oldest child, Mousa (Mansoor Noor), an equally idealistic teen who went on a journey to help build a school when a car accident took him to Haifa hospital. He too questions what he has been taught as he experiences the kindness of a Jewish woman in an Israeli hospital while being aware of the extreme loss his ancestors faced because of the Arab-Israeli conflicts.
Both families begin their dinners on the large, beautifully set table that makes up Courtney Westbrook’s set. Although each family sits right next to each other on set, neither is aware of the other. The families exist concurrently but do not engage – a very clever representation of the East v. West, Jewish v. Muslim divide in Sydney – both there, but very much apart.
For someone whose background matches either of these families, the constant bombardment of stereotypes may leave you cold as the production continues. In an effort to really establish each family as a perfect representation of that religion, in my opinion, the writing team has gone too far and the depth of the issues presented in the play are washed over by too many Jewish/Muslim stereotypes.
With that said, there is a reason that this team of writers have felt the need to bring this story to our attention – there is far too much of a divide, caused by baseless hatred and intense prejudice, between families who at the crux of it are all just the same. At the one long table sits a sole-surviving grandparent, two parents, two kids and a friend. Both families sit down to a traditional meal. Both families want to engage, discuss, and remember. Both families want their children to make the most of the opportunities that they have, within the reasonable limits of their religion. Both families want their heritage to live on through their children.
Neither family wants their children to end up with someone ‘other’.
And while both families may be able to control some of these things, the meeting of Mousa and Ruth in that hospital in Haifa is beyond the control of either family, but something that will change both families forever.
Suzanne Millar’s direction left me simultaneously impressed and cold. Certainly, the decision to have the two families side by side but unaware of each other was a striking directorial choice that, from the audience’s perspective, made the show. When the scenes were flowing through and the conversations seemed to an extent, organic, the play was highly engaging. When the flow was interrupted by the ‘dimming lights, standing tableux in all white clothing image’, that so many shows now seem to use, the play started to feel jarred and the realistic and naturalistic dinner table image was lost.
For an uncommonly large cast in a rather small space at the Kings Cross Theatre, the movement of so many people was smooth and very well thought out. Furthermore, the casting choices were spot on for many of the roles and as an ensemble, the cast was exceptionally strong. Congratulations to all the actors in the show.
Stereotypes aside, Yvonne Perczuk, Nur Alam, Raya Gadir, Chril Hill, Marian Kernahan, and Ruth Kliman, have written an intensely powerful script that reminds us of the negativity in common cultural rhetoric and the need to understand each other in the current climate in order to overcome past tensions, attacks, and opinions of hatred. With the media covering so many acts of hatred and baseless insensitivity world-wide (think Trump), it was refreshing to finally see a play taking an important social stand.
The Laden Table is a great example of just how powerful the theatre can act as a tool to inspire change for social good.