The Book of Exodus: Part 1

Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars
Book of Exodus 2017 Fraught Outfit at Theatre Works production still 02 feat Sol Feldman photographer credit Pia Johnson
Photograph: Pia Johnson Sol Feldman

Fraught Outfit (The Bacchae) explore a Biblical narrative through young performers in this final instalment of their 'Innocence Trilogy'

Collective memory is etched deeply into the texts, rituals and culture of Judaism. The Hebrew Bible instructs its followers not to forget the history and the stories of the Jewish people who have come before. Holocaust memorials stand as reminders of shared trauma and experience. And rituals such as Hanukkah and the Passover seder are practices of active remembrance through symbolism, liturgy and the gathering of family.

It is the events surrounding and including the Passover story – which charts the deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt – that Melbourne independent theatre company Fraught Outfit seek to explore in The Book of Exodus: Part 1. It’s the third instalment of their Innocence trilogy of adaptations; the first being Wedekind’s On the Bodily Education of Young Girls (2013), followed by Euripides‘ The Bacchae (2015). In all three, director Adena Jacobs has worked with children and teenagers. This time, she is working with an eight-year-old boy and 11-year-old girl to interpret Exodus, the second book in the Hebrew bible; a story of suffering, deliverance, retribution and love.

Pale light rises on a landscape covered with broken slabs of Styrofoam, flanked at the back by a tall wall in the same material. We’re left here in silence for longer than feels comfortable, until slowly, two figures emerge from underneath the rubble – the first being a tiny old woman (Sol Feldman), then a hunched old man (Tarana Verma). Watching the woman through the lens of a video camera, the man instructs her to take off her gold jewellery, and then her heavy robes, to reveal a young boy’s body streaked with angry red wounds.

As they shuffle through squeaky Styrofoam, it’s as if the two children are wading through Jewish history and memory, discovering, enacting and interpreting it as they go. Symbols and stories are salvaged in the rubble, but they are not always understood. In the hands of children, some discoveries, like a pharaoh’s hat, feel playful. But lurking beyond the veil of innocence is a darker shadow; the sudden appearance of what appear to be serial numbers projected onto the back wall is a chilling recollection of concentration camps.

Moments like these make for uncomfortable viewing – but this ominous tone is very much intentional. As with the previous two instalments of the Innocence trilogy, the perceived purity and vulnerability of children is constantly set in distressing opposition to the sinister or violent acts that are inflicted on them (or that they themselves are inflicting).

Unfortunately, where the previous works forged a sense of discomfort and pushed that tension to almost unbearable heights, The Book of Exodus: Part 1 struggles to build on itself beyond individual moments. As a non-narrative exploration of Jewish memory and experience (as opposed to a direct re-telling of the story), pacing is crucial. Without momentum, it becomes hard to move past the feeling of wanting something more concrete, beyond the often obscure imagery and signifiers. Even the sparse lighting design (Emma Valente) and sound (Max Lyandvert) feels somewhat faded out.

These issues aside, the final image of Part 1 left me cautiously optimistic for the project’s second half later this year. As we reach the terrible apex of the story of the ten plagues of Egypt, the girl stands defiantly, a shadow of fear visible in her face. Her arm is outstretched and painted with a streak of blood – an echo of God’s instruction to the Hebrews on the night of the Passover. The boy (perhaps the first-born son who will be spared by God, unlike the children of the Egyptians) cries behind her. While this work feels like an early draft, it is still a fascinating, ambitious undertaking; and one that I am eager to see to its conclusion.

Book Of Exodus is presented in two parts: Part I in June, and Part II in October:

Part I: Two children create a documentary of a history they cannot remember.
An intimate exploration of history, memory and trauma, performed by children aged 8 and 11 years old.

Part II: A mass of children wait in the desert. With no leader to guide them, and no one to answer their cries, they summon an unruly force. Performed by around 40 children, tracing a community propelled from a violent past into an uncertain future.

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