Dressed in Lycra shorts and a vest top, Pepa Duarte speaks directly to the audience: “Am I fat?” This question is a refrain in this intimate and inventive one-woman show about body image, cultural identity and womanhood. “I always ask myself that question. I don’t know the answer.”
It becomes clear that Duarte, a Peruvian-born writer and actor, has seen her body as a battleground for much of her life, and this show is a journey through that traumatic personal history – though it is not without its upbeat moments. Directed by Sergio Maggiolo and recorded just before lockdown at the Golden Goose theatre in London, it all takes place inside the space of a cooking lesson.
Duarte makes traditional Peruvian bean soup on a stove as she recounts her mother’s dour, functional relationship to food in her childhood and the “permanent diet” of her own adult life. There are triumphant stories of weight loss and successful self-denial, her plunging despair at the loss of control that always seem to follow, and delicious memories of the fat-laden dishes of her youth. Against it all is Duarte’s fastidious audit of calories and grams of fat consumed.
Her hostile relationship to food is connected to womanhood: “Most people can eat whatever they want, but for women it tends to be different, or at least it was for me.” Duarte tells us of her teenage rebellion against all things “womanly” in Peruvian culture, but her narrative resists the temptation to root back for exact causes for her negative body image, or so it seems.
She suggests a few reasons – her mother’s bland vegetarianism that denied any pleasure in taste, for instance – but there are big gaps in the family story and almost no mention of her father. “I didn’t feel loved,” she says about her relationship with men, but we do not delve deeper. The ellipses are perhaps deliberate but deny a more joined-up understanding of the emotional cravings.
What gives the show its unique power is an overt and audacious theatricality. Duarte sings, mimes and uses her body expressionistically to provide comic whimsy or psychological drama. Jagged music accompanies one scene in which she counts calories, scribbling calculations on the floor with chalk to reflect a manic, self-punishing mind state.
There is a kitchen table and cooking station on the stage, along with hanging mobiles that leave cups, clothes, saucepans suspended against a black backdrop and make Laura Arroyo’s set design appear like a strange, floating dreamscape.
Eating Myself has such intense and engrossing theatricality that it creates a yearning – its own kind of hunger – for the live experience rather the paler virtual counterpart, full of sights and, one imagines, smells, that demand to be experienced communally, in an auditorium, rather than on screen.