The Midnight Soup by Leo Burtin is a love letter from a grandson to his late grandmother. A show that combines theatre with audience participation cookery, it’s another innovative piece in Summerhall‘s ever-ambitious Fringe programme. It’s also part of the Death on the Fringe event series which gets Edinburgh thinking about the biggest issue of all. Burtin spoke to us to tell us more…
What is the “Midnight Soup”?
The Midnight Soup is a performance during which, together with the audience I prepare a meal that we will share at the end of the show. The Midnight Soup is also the English translation of the name of said meal – “mitternachtsuppe” – which is a rich soup that is thought to have originated in Germany.
The show begins with me telling the story of my grandmother’s life up to her suicide in 2012 and as the piece unfolds, it becomes more conversational and is an invitation to think together about the end of our lives, caring for those at the end of their lives and our relationship to the passing of time.
Tell us about your grandmother…
My grandmother spent the entirety of her life living and working in the north-east of France, in the Lorraine region. She was a farmer, and even after she retired, she kept land and spent much of her time growing food for herself, the family and neighbours. She was born in the early 1930s and left school in her early teens, like most of the people her age in the region. She was really curious, and always keen to gain new knowledge. She was someone who was interested in most things and she spent a great deal of time reading, watching documentaries, listening to stories on the radio. She was a traditional cook, and very skilled. She was also an acute observer of everyday life. She could recognise most of the fauna and flora around her extremely quickly and accurately. She was also a diarist; every day she would sit down at the kitchen table and compile notes of what had happened that day. Her diaries are very much the primary source of inspiration for the show. They are both completely banal and gently poetic. She gave me her 2006 diary, and I think it might be the most precious thing I own.
What was the significance of food to the relationship you had with her?
My grandmother taught me how to cook, and quite importantly, allowed me to experiment and to a certain extent “play” with food. I think she knew I would learn much more from being tactile and making mistakes than I would have by just reproducing her gestures. Food was also always a connecting mechanism; it was a way to talk and share without the pressure of looking each other too deeply in the eyes. We don’t say “I love you” much in my family, but through thick and thin there is always enough food for whomever might be coming through the door. The more I think about it, and the clearer it seems to me: food is a way of communicating our love, and our care for one another.
What made you create this particular piece in response? What made you tell it in this particular way?
My grandmother’s death was sudden and unexpected, we could never have imagined she would commit suicide. After she died, I became increasingly aware of how much many of us shy away from talking about death frankly and clearly. I was also struck by how suicides are reported in the media, how many metaphors and stories are woven into stories of suicide. In researching suicide in older people, it also became clear that my grandmother’s death was not as unusual as we might have been led to believe. More than telling her particular story, it became important to me to talk to as many people about death and suicide as possible. I wanted to open the conversation up so that we can all be more informed, more prepared and more open.
The format, and the sharing of a meal was quite evident very early on. I really wanted to create a space that was layered and warm. I wanted to be able to host the kind of event that empowers people to explore complex ideas without it being pressured. In doing something together, we become connected and it becomes easier for the audience to become something of a temporary community. I am more of a host than a performer, really, and I am much more interested in enabling others to tell their stories than in laying down my thoughts and opinions. This performance meal format really allows for that to happen I think.
It’s a very long show by Fringe standards, so can you talk us through what happens in that time?
Yes, indeed, it’s a very long show by Fringe standards, but I think time flies over the course of the performance. The piece unfolds more or less over two “acts”. For the first 90 minutes or so, what you experience is me telling a story, with a few “pauses”. In each pause, I guide my guests in preparing the Midnight Soup of the title. Together we chop various vegetables and chat as we do so. Once the soup is ready, the second “act” kicks in. For the final hour of the performance, we eat together and have an informal conversation about some of the subject matters explored in the piece. Often at this point, audience members wish to ask me a few questions or share their own stories. The two halves of the show are intricately linked and while the second part is less “performative” than the first, it is very much part of the design.
How has making it helped you reflect on your grandmother’s life and death?
I think this show has enabled me to appreciate the value of the “rooted” kind of life my grandmother lived. My grandmother’s life was guided by the rhythms of the seasons and she always paid close attention to the weather. I always had itchy feet and left the rural family home aged 15. I could not wait to get out, to see other places, meet different people, and I think for a good long while I did not really understand why you would want to live your life any differently. Making this show has very much led me to try to teach myself to stop and smell the roses a little bit more. I’m not very good at it yet, but I live to learn.
We will never know why my grandmother committed suicide. She is not here to tell us. What this show has led me to reflect on though, is how we can empower ourselves to make informed choices about the way in which we want to spend the end of our lives, and how we can enable our loved ones to do so. The Midnight Soup begins with the audience answering a few questions about what they value most and care about, and I hope that it encourages people to communicate these things as much as their funeral wishes. If we knew what really mattered to our loved ones, we would probably be more present when these things are under threat.
Have any audience responses shocked or surprised you?
I am always surprised by how generous audiences are with the show. People always seem to bring an open mind and to be prepared to hear very different opinions or thoughts to the ones they hold dear. One moment I will never forget was serving the soup to a man named Geoff, who suffers from a terminal pulmonary disease. As I handed him his bowl, he shook my hand and told me that while he knew he days were counted, he felt like hearing this story gave him “his life back”. In our conversation, it became clear that he had been so concerned with thinking about his death that he had forgotten to keep living. Just thinking about that makes me incredibly emotional.
On a lighter note, I was once interrupted mid-monologue by a woman who asked me: “how long is this going to go on for?” It was a matinee and she’d made a hair appointment, you see…
What do you think your grandmother would have thought about it?
That’s an excellent question, and one that I have thought about many times. It’s a bit of a paradoxical one, given that if my grandmother could see the show, the show wouldn’t have much of a reason to be. Or perhaps, she might have been in it; we might have told the History of France through her diaries from 1930 to the mid 2000s. How epic would that have been?
She was a very humble woman, so I think she might have been a little bit embarrassed maybe… I think she might also be quietly proud to see her story move other people. She planned her death very carefully, and I believe she would have made arrangements to get rid of her diaries if she had not wanted her memories to live beyond her…
It’s impossible to tell, of course.