“I made myself a chilli chicken and beef salad,” says actor Fayssal Bazzi, his current diet seeming worthy of discussion as he's due to appear in the Belvoir/Force Majeure co-production of Steve Rodgers' Food in Belvoir's Downstairs Theatre. “I think my protein intake has certainly increased!” he jokes boisterously. Though these kinds of culinary specifics are also worthy of note, given the physically demanding rehearsal process for Food, which brings together Rodgers' writing and directorial vision and the unparalleled physical theatre experience of co-director and artistic director of Force Majeure, Kate Champion. Understandably, it's demanding a fair bit physically from the cast.
“It's been a delight to have the physical and movement aspect, not short on the fact that we start every day with an hour of yoga followed by a bit of Pilates, so if nothing else we're getting really fit,” jokes a high-spirited Bazzi. “It's funny having someone come from an angle that you're not used to thinking about, you know? Like how you can tell a whole story without saying anything, just with the way you're facing or the way your body is moving, you can get rid of whole passages of speech and tell that whole passage in a simple movement. Once you step outside of your comfort zone, which are the words, you realise how powerful that can be. It's just something that, as an artist, you don't really think about until someone hits you over the head with it.
“It's a little different than most things obviously, having both Kate and Stevie both directing - Kate just bringing her own movement, dance-y feel to it and Stevie handling the words side of it - but it's all coming together pretty nicely.”
Food tells the story of two sisters, played by Emma Jackson and Kate Box, who grew up in a greasy takeaway joint on the side of a country highway. This is a world populated by semi-trailers and Chico rolls, grease traps and sloppy pies. As they grow older, one sister leaves, the other remaining in the world in which they grew up. The separate lives they've led collide when she returns to the takeaway joint, her experience of the world fuelling a plan to turn it from roadside eatery to restaurant.
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Which is where Bazzi comes in, as Hakan Leventoglu, aka Hassan The Beautiful, aka Hassan, Son Of Handsome. “That's the translation of his name from Turkish!” Bazzi laughs modestly, as though by confirming the role one could mistake him for suggesting he was also worthy of such a title. Hassan is brought on board as the chef at the new restaurant, and throws a male presence into the arena as the two sisters redefine their relationship.
“He's a bit of a nomad. As the play progresses you find out that he's originally from Turkey, you find out about the women he's been with in his life and the impact that they've had on his life and he just brings a touch of magic to the show and to the lives of the two female characters. It's been a pleasure to play.
“The girls are turning their takeaway shop into a restaurant, so he basically helps them develop their friendship as he comes in as the third hand; a foreign kind of touch to their lives, something they're not used to. And he's also just a man, a 'man', because a lot of the problems the girls had faced in their upbringing [were] the effect of men in their lives, you know? One of them had the attention of men and the other one didn't and now there is a man who has basically infiltrated their personal lives and it's interesting to see the differing effects that does have on them,” explains Bazzi.
He's not only bringing a foreign touch to the restaurant portrayed on stage. As hinted at, Bazzi's Turkish translation skills are more than up to scratch, which, coincidentally, is how he first became involved with Food. “Stevie, a few years ago, actually showed me the script and just wanted some notes on some of the Arabic and the Turkish that was being used so I had actually seen the script initially maybe two or three years ago. As we were developing it and it got closer to the day and we'd done a couple of workshops, as well as seeing the different takes that Kate would have compared to Stevie's ideas – I think it's really important as well that Kate was in the room,” Bazzi digresses, clearly relishing the dual-handed directorial approach, “because Stevie, as the writer, you know, he could be very precious about things but then with Kate there as a separate eye. As beautiful as the writing would be, she could say, 'We don't actually need this for the storytelling.' So it's been something that's been inside my head now for two years.”
While he was originally helping only with the translations, through the readings, workshops and other developments the character of Hassan held undeniable appeal, and Bazzi remained cautiously optimistic that he'd get to play the role. “I was quietly confident that role was always mine,” he admits before adding, still laughing. “I didn't doubt that.”
It's the kind of confidence and appeal Hassan exudes – “When I arrive there's a kind of intoxicating effect I'm supposed to have on the audience – we'll see if that happens,” Bazzi says, again laughing – though if he falls short of intoxicating there's not too much concern; audiences are wined and dined during the performance.