Elle is living a dream: her estranged Italian aunt has passed away and left her rural olive farm in its entirety to her. But after Elle has flown over from Sydney, it becomes clear that her aunt has left her a lot more than just the farm. In an unravelling story of family secrets, environmentalism, extortion, and murder, Daniela Giorgi’s Italian adventure covers it all in a homey and haunted kitchen.
Inspired by romanticised travel novels typically featuring a high-strung city woman learning to enjoy the simple life of rural Europe, Giorgi’s play attempts to subvert the genre by revealing the less appealing aspects of true Italian life like the unpredictable work schedules of professionals and police, rampant theft, and a deep trauma left over from Mussolini’s era. This relationship between the brusque and xenophobic foreigner and the locals forced into justifying their histories is an interesting dynamic that unfortunately remains shallow here, not diving deep into either position or challenging Elle’s dismissal of Italy’s past and her ironic ignorance of Australia’s genocidal history. Combined with her semi-interest in the history of the olive farm and her father’s very secret Italian family, continued to be kept secret by the neighbour Anna (Taylor Buoro) and the farm-hands Giulia (Wendi Lanham) and Carlo (Myles Waddell), there is a thick gloss over the entire first half of the play that encourages a disinterest in the audience to match Elle’s.
With plotting stretched thin in the expositional opening half, the second is overflowing with melodrama. From an attempted murder of Elle, revealed to be an extortion plot from the family solicitor (David Jeffrey), to an unexpected pregnancy and heavy-handed wolf-sighting; then the uncovering of a disinherited cousin and a complete change of face for Elle who decides not to sell the farm she’s spent the whole play trying to get rid of, the pacing of this rural kitchen story is completely thrown into meaninglessness. Add in overly earnest recreations of Elle’s father’s abusive childhood and the production is positively grasping at both shock and poignancy.
In the quiet moments where Anna welcomes Elle to her home away from home with homemade food and neighbourhood gossip, there is charm and grace and comfort. Buoro, even when pushing her love of Australia into conversation or banging pots around the kitchen to ward off evil spirits, she is elegant and warm, filling the kitchen (and the stage) with a bright spiritedness. Carlo is similarly compellingly characterised by Waddell with his gentle explanations about the trauma of Italy’s fascist past and the ecological destruction waiting around the corner. These two humbled but rounded characters could have carried a story about rural tensions between experimentation and tradition well without the injected melodrama with life and death stakes.
In Giulia’s pregnancy, Carlo’s successful bean crop, and Anna’s trip to Sweden, there is hope for a better future for their family and community, something with more opportunities to heal the pain of violence and control. At the heart of the Poor Kitchen is the meaning of family and history and the love that keeps us all going.
The Poor Kitchen is running at Limelight on Oxford from May 8th – 26th