In the hands of director Adena Jacobs and a cast of 20 children, the biblical story of the Book of Exodus becomes a fascinating exploration of what it means to be at the mercy of a system, facing an uncertain future
“Think of the children” is a loaded phrase. As adults, we often attempt to bolster our political opinions by arguing that we’re speaking in the best interests of children, who are the largest demographic in the world without a say in what happens in our future. You only have to look at the marriage equality plebiscite debate for a current example.
It’s an irony not lost on Adena Jacobs, artistic director of Melbourne independent theatre company Fraught Outfit. “We don’t hear things from children’s perspectives, [yet] they are the people who are at the centre of our times – the ones who are at the forefront of what’s possible.”
The Book of Exodus: Part 2 is the final instalment of Jacobs’ Innocence Trilogy, in which her company, Fraught Outfit, have reimagined old texts to be performed by children and teenagers. First there was On the Bodily Education of Young Girls (2013), followed by Euripides‘ The Bacchae (2015). The Book of Exodus: Part 1 (performed earlier this year) told the story of Passover, which follows the deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. In each of these, Jacobs has worked with her casts to shape their responses to the texts into surreal, unsettling works.
Part 2 opens in the desert, as the Children of Israel wait for their liberator, Moses, to receive the law of God. Broken by the horrors of the past and crying out for a leader, they become restless, desperate, and eventually, disobedient. They take the law into their own hands, building a statue of a golden calf which they worship in place of God. When Moses returns to discover their transgression, God demands that they be punished.
It’s a violent, difficult story that Jacobs has wanted to tell for many years. “I wondered what it would be like if we staged this idea with a literal group of children… children in a lawless state. If we think of God as an unstable parent who needs his children to come and worship him, but then punishes them for their response to him having abandoned them for a period of time, on a level of parental responsibility and the fundamental needs of a child, I think it’s super interesting.”
If the idea of watching this story played out by kids feels unnerving, then that’s exactly what Jacobs is going for. In each instalment of the Innocence Trilogy, the perceived purity or vulnerability of children is set in opposition with a looming threat of chaos that could be inflicted on them (or that they themselves might inflict). In a particularly disturbing scene in Part 1, a young boy paints red wounds on his body, representing Jewish rituals of remembering past suffering.
“I’m really interested in that friction,” Jacobs explains. “There is something about the innocent figure and things which are extreme or violent or powerful that feels interesting. The whole trilogy of works is looking at young people on stage as a metaphor for waiting for the next stage of life, for being on the precipice of transformation or transgression.”
The more Jacobs works with children, the more she realises just how much we underestimate them. “In terms of everything that’s happening at the moment politically, it feels bizarre to be hanging out with kids and just going, ‘They are way ahead of us.’ They’ve got a lot to show us…. they’re a very questioning group and they’re asking why God wants [the Children of Israel] to do that. They don’t have the memory or history that adults are carrying with them, which is creating a sense of fear that we are repeating ourselves or that we’re going backwards. I think the act of putting young people on stage makes us reflect and reconsider our understanding of what children are capable of.”
The Book of Exodus: Part 2 runs from Oct 18-29 at Theatre Works.