In the hands of 16 children, the biblical story becomes a fascinating exploration of what it means to be at the mercy of a system, facing an uncertain future
The God of the Book of Exodus is not the loving, forgiving father-figure portrayed in other Biblical stories. This is a God who inflicts terrible plagues on Egypt, and strikes down first-born boys in order to free the Hebrew slaves. After liberating them, he forces the Children of Israel to wander in the desert for years before they can reach the Promised Land. And when their desperation and restlessness leads the children to build a golden calf to worship in place of God, he punishes them.
The relationship between the Children of Israel and God – an angry, jealous and unpredictable father – is the focus of The Book of Exodus: Part 2, co-devised by director Adena Jacobs and dramaturge Aaron Orzech. The piece is the final instalment of their boundary-breaking ‘Innocence Trilogy’: a series of works that reimagines old texts as performed by teenagers and children. In each of these – starting with an adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s On the Bodily Education of Young Girls (2013) then Euripides’ The Bacchae (2015) – Jacobs and Orzech have crafted visually and symbolically rich responses that home in on ideas of subjugation under patriarchy, and the struggle for liberation.
Performed earlier this year, The Book of Exodus: Part 1 was a sparse and stirring exploration of collective Jewish memory and inherited experience, loosely framed by the story of the deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. Part 2 picks things up in the desert, as the Children of Israel wait for their liberator, Moses, to receive the law of God.
Visually, the contrast with Part 1 is immediately obvious. The first instalment was performed by two children, wading through white styrofoam rubble. The second opens with a cast of 16 eight to 13-year-olds in a bare space, adorned only by a large golden circle on the ground (perhaps a reference to the golden calf). A large orange light, set into a circular frame, looms from the side of the stage, representing the hot desert sun. It’s a testament to lighting designer Jenny Hector that this relatively simple, yet refined set by Eugyeene Teh transforms from being warmly sun-lit to an uninviting, grey landscape in moments.
As with the other works in the ‘Innocence Trilogy’, Part 2 exists in an abstract, liminal space, where narrative and text is largely abandoned in favour of movement sequences. It begins as the children inch across the stage in sleeping bags, bathed in hazy orange light. The children navigate finely tuned choreographed scenes, at times creating staccato vocal soundtracks, playing with objects like shovels and dirt, Pharaoh masks and baby bottles, or chasing each other in scenes that toe an uneasy line between playful and menacing.
By casting children as the Children of Israel, Jacobs brings the concept of God as an abusive parent into sharp relief. There’s a real sense that at any time, these lawless and vulnerable children could descend into chaos. A particularly impactful moment sees a row of teats descend from the ceiling, just high to be out of reach for at least half of the starving children. Like the Book of Exodus itself, Jacobs’ piece does not try to explain why the Children of Israel must endure these trials. By putting them on stage, she forces audiences to question this themselves.
Those unfamiliar with the play’s source material might struggle to interpret certain sequences and symbols. However, there are enough visually arresting moments and thought-provoking interactions to make Part 2 well worth viewing for lovers of experimental theatre. Adena Jacobs and Aaron Orzech are creating some of the most sophisticated avant-garde theatre in the country; and now that the Innocence Trilogy is complete, we can’t wait to see what they do next.