Chicken Soup with Barley: the End of Idealism

La Perla 29

This Catalan version of Arnold Wesker’s 1956 play, Chicken Soup with Barley, centred on a working class family living in London, is a finely staged and well-choreographed production, featuring a strong central performance by Màrcia Cisteró as the die-hard socialist Sarah Kahn. The play (Catalan title: Sopa de pollastre amb ordi) centres on the ideals and growing disillusionment of the Kahn family; East End (London) Jews living through a tumultuous chunk of the 20th century. Sarah fans the flames of socialist idealism while serving tea and soup, but her husband Harry (Lluís Villanueva) is lazy and a liar. Their children Ada (Maria Rodriguez) and Ronnie (Pol López) are young passionate idealists, who (like most of us!) get a shock when real life kicks in.

We begin in 1936 and excitement is in the air. The family prepare to blockade the streets, for the fascists are on the march! The reference is to the march of the ‘blackshirts’ of Sir Oswald Mosley, the sinister leader of the British Union of Fascists. The Khans talk of travelling to Spain to fight for the Second Republic. Notably, while the play has been implied in its publicity to relate to the movement for Catalan independence – it is not about nationhood or identity, but working class solidarity with Europe through universal socialist ideals.

After World War II, things have changed. The family home is better furnished, but news of Soviet atrocities sees socialism as a unifying party principle begin to fall apart. Ada moves to the country causing a kerfuffle. Ronnie departs for Paris to pursue a bohemian life. Harry, after two strokes, settles into his beloved armchair for life. Sarah remains adamantly socialist.

At the end of the play it is 1956, when the Soviet invasion of Hungary saw the betrayal of the socialist ideal complete. A broken Ronnie returns disillusioned by working life, and by political institutions pumped up by empty propaganda: “Why do I feel ashamed to use words like democracy and freedom?” asks Ronnie. It’s a good question. Sarah’s response: that you “must care or you’ll die” leaves a chasm between them; one – importantly – left unresolved in Wesker’s text. Although this production has other ideas!

Sopa de pollastre amb ordi
by Arnold Wesker, directed by Ferran Utzet
Biblioteca de Catalunya
until 8th April