A play on words
Fraught Outfit’s ‘Book of Exodus: Part I’ explores the written word in a realm beyond language
One of the reasons I enjoy writing about live performance is its unique challenges. I am a profoundly word-centred person: written language has been, for as long as I can remember, the first thing I reach for when I wish to express myself. And yet performance always exceeds language: it is at once word embodied as action, and presence that can’t be contained by words. Writing about performance is by definition a dance with failure, an attempt to translate the untranslatable.
Some shows highlight this struggle more than others. Fraught Outfit’s Book of Exodus: Part I (at Theatre Works in Melbourne until 18 June), co-created by Adena Jacobs and Aaron Orzech, brings the paradoxes of performance into sharp relief: the past, as embodied and inscribed history, playing out in a wholly absorbing present; a mostly wordless play that interrogates one of the most significant texts of Judaic culture. It feels particularly challenging, as if language itself has been erased in the process of the show and must somehow be resurrected in a new form.
Any text that claims to be artistic exceeds itself. Like poems and novels, even the most conventional plays carry within them the realm that exists beyond language. And perhaps, as is demonstrated by the millions of words of exegesis that they spawn, nothing is as excessive as religious texts. The inherent instability of meaning in written language is intensified, or perhaps made obvious, when a text is embodied in the flesh of actors and realised in three dimensions.
Exodus is the first instalment of the final part in Fraught Outfit’s Innocence Trilogy, with part two coming in October. The trilogy began with a coolly intelligent interrogation of Frank Wedekind’s On the Bodily Education of Young Girls and continued with an extraordinary adaptation of The Bacchae for the 2015 Melbourne Festival. All of these shows are acute and powerful examinations of patriarchal power, performed mostly by children.
Even though, like the previous shows, Exodus has little text, it is heavy with the word. This is true even of the least representational performance – abstract dance, for instance, has the shadow of language in the process of its creation – but subtext in this show is almost everything.
It begins with a stage that evokes the stillness after catastrophe. When the lights go up we contemplate in silence a set by Kate Davis (lit by Emma Valente) made entirely of styrofoam: a high white wall at the back, with a rectangular floor knee-deep in broken styrofoam that defines the playing space. It’s like the ruins of a city, or the floor of a stony desert.
Two young children (on the night I saw it, Sol Feldman, 8, and Tarana Verma, 11) rise from beneath the rubble masked and cloaked as an old woman (Feldman) and an old man (Verma). The old man hobbles to a video camera at the side of the set, which projects into the back wall, and instructs the old woman to show her arm (a long red scar), her legs (another scar on her ankle), her back (another). The wounds of slavery. “Show me your gold,” he says, in the voice of a young girl. The old woman mutely displays her gold bracelets, her earrings, and puts them aside. And suddenly Auschwitz is chillingly present.
The children are clearly following rehearsed actions, but they aren’t “acting” in any conventional sense. They enact the plagues of Egypt as a game of doctor and nurse, the building of the Tabernacle with a gingerbread house, their play heightened by a various score by Max Lyandvert. They’re as often comical as serious. The effect is completely compelling, winding you in past the noise of conscious thought to some deeper place, so that the end of the show comes as a shock. At just over 50 minutes it’s short, but I would have sworn it was no longer than half an hour.
The sole text in the performance is Yahweh’s grim instructions to the Jews in Egypt, to sacrifice the paschal lamb in order to escape the plague that will kill every firstborn in the kingdom. The children we are watching are both survivors and victims, bound to a jealous and vengeful God, the uber-patriarch who first seeks to demonstrate his power, not only over his enemies, but over his own people. The presence of the children onstage mutely poses the questions: How are these things inscribed upon childish bodies? How are children to understand the suffering and crimes of history? How much is memory itself a reproduction of violence?
The show doesn’t attempt to answer these questions. Rather, it brings them to the surface of your mind, delicately and even playfully, in a way that is profoundly unsettling. The fusion of literal presence and allusive meaning becomes more complex as the show progresses, but always remains poised on the fulcrum of ambiguity. At one moment we are watching children playing with paint, but this is also a video of dead children sprawled in the ruins of a city, perhaps Palestine, perhaps Syria, that maybe we saw yesterday.
Feldman and Verma are strikingly able and autonomous performers, but their solitude onstage, exposed before the gaze of the audience, gives their presence a heightened sense of fragility. I don’t think that quite accounts for the resonance of Exodus, which reaches inward, evoking memories of childhood, and outward through histories and the present in multiplying ripples. It leaves you speechless, and then forces you to speak in order to understand what just happened.