They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt?’
———– Exodus 14:11
Fraught Outfit’s Book of Exodus is a play in two parts. Part I, staged in June: two children in a rubble of white foam blocks. We do not see or hear them for a long time; we know only the expanse of blocky white unhewn edges. Then, a few pieces begin to shift. A hand, then an arm. Grotesque rubber masks – one of an old man, the other an old woman – cover what we know are children’s faces. They move slowly and deliberately, picking their way through the space, carefully placing feet down through the foam in search for a steady surface below.
Part II, in October: sixteen new children on a stage of black. Again, at first they are hidden, lumps in black sleeping bags. They rise and wander the stage. Their energy builds, they run through the space, their sleeping bags discarded, then stacked; they know this terrain, however threatening its inky depth.
We are here to see the story of Exodus: the story of how the Children of Israel were enslaved by the Pharaoh, until God appeared to Moses to tell him to take his people away from Egypt. Each time Moses asked the Pharaoh for freedom and was denied, God smote the land with a plague. Only after the tenth plague – the death of every first born, the wailing throughout Egypt – were the Israelites set free. At the end of their 430th year in Egypt, they were able to walk away in search of the Promised Land. But their God was a jealous God, and a vengeful God, and in the desert they were not free of suffering.
We know that this is the story we are here to see, but co-creators Adena Jacobs and Aaron Orzech deliver it to us only in snatches. Book of Exodus is non-sequential, ambiguous, ephemeral. It’s about images and emotional sketches, told to us through the bodies of children: they show off gold jewellery, pushed high up their too-small wrists; they don a Pharaoh’s headdress of cheap material, like a Halloween costume bought at a supermarket; they jump frantically, trying to drink from teats which descend from above the stage. Only a few children are tall enough to latch on; most go hungry, but continue jumping in the hope that this time they will reach.
Book of Exodus is the third and final work in what Jacobs and Orzech have dubbed ‘The Innocence Trilogy’, after On The Bodily Education of Young Girls (2013) and The Bacchae (2015) – three retellings that use young performers to twist the audience’s perspective on classic texts, myth telling and performance spaces.
While Book of Exodus is a play in two parts – and seen together each speaks in dialogue with the other – both parts stand equally alone. Over the months between Part I and Part II, memory fades and morphs. This ephemerality is an integral part of seeing performance, and it’s a fascinating trick to force us to confront the role of time in our perception of art.
Over the months between Part I and Part II, memory fades and morphs… [forcing] us to confront the role of time in our perception of art.
But, there is a question here: are these, in fact, two parts of the one play, as Jacobs and Orzech have titled them – or are they best talked about and seen as separate considerations? Not part three in a trilogy, but parts three and four in a quartet? Or indeed, if a play is separated in this way – by months, by casts, by designers – could it have been separated even further by aesthetics, or by artistic form?
The works themselves are short – each around an hour – and, with their separate casts, could easily be staged as a double bill on the one night. By billing and building this work as two parts of the one play, the creators pull out the timeframe in which we consider theatre. In this way, Book of Exodus doesn’t run for two hours – it runs for five months.
It is easy to feel, after seeing Part I, that you have developed a framework in which to view Part II – and indeed the non-linear, representative scaffolding remains – but in fact the space, and so our response to it, is radically changed. Kate Davis’ white foam blocks give way to Eugyeene Teh’s black expanse; props become pared down and simpler – the children find their sustenance in babies’ bottles instead of an elaborate gingerbread house; they play with discarded animal horn instead of a camera.
The children exist in spaces of darkness, as lighting designers Emma Valente (Part I) and Jenny Hector (Part II) play with states of half-light. The brightest luminescence on Valente’s stage comes from a dulled screen playing doubled-up images of the children on stage and their recorded selves, filmed and projected live behind the playing space. On Hector’s stage, an unearthly glow ebbs and flows from a light hanging above the stage in Teh’s stage design; sometimes a mere ember, sometimes a burning rage, the full force of the sun beating down on a never-ending desert.
Director Jacobs does not build a resolution into her second part; nor does she use Part II to shine light on Part I. While perhaps the images of Part II could be understood as latter parts of Exodus, the ephemeral nature of it means this cannot be said definitively. Instead, it seems through the two parts she is simply turning the well-known story over in her hands, looking at it through different angles to ask: what do we understand of this story, and of religious stories and histories in general? How do we understand suffering and punishment of people? How do histories live on through children?
A religious story, or history, is there for those who choose to see it; for others there is a space for meditation on broader questions of violence and mythmaking.
Jacobs and Orzech do not make any claims about the Bible in Australian society, nor about our understanding of Exodus today – instead, they simply take this foundational Western story of violence and the building of a people and ask the audience to read into it what they will. A religious story, or history, is there for those who choose to see it; for others there is a space for meditation on broader questions of violence and mythmaking.
Exodus is a violent story of abandonment and punishment, and this violence is emphasised when it is reframed by placing children on stage. As a culture, we view children as inherently innocent, and so their being stranded in this space with little sustenance and no adults – no authority figures or guiding comforts – increases our awareness of the violence of this story.
The children in Book of Exodus are largely silent, or at least do not have dialogue – they make noises, breathe heavily, recite poems that appear to be arbitrary nonsense rhymes; chant words from the Bible. We do not hear their own voices. They often look directly at the audience – softly, slowly, judging our actions and our gaze. There is no way for us to ignore their knowledge of the theatre being a shared space – and thus we become implicated in this story of violence, and the way it trickles down generations: the actions we perform in the world today shape the world these children will grow up in.
There is no resolution here. No restoration. As adults in the audience we are asked to simply sit and feel the weight of abandonment, slavery, and misery that sits on the shoulders of these children. To simply contemplate the way history is doomed to repeat itself. The children of Israel were freed from slavery only to walk the desert for forty years. They were not the first people to suffer; nor were they the last. We may, as an ever increasingly secular society, be abandoning the stories of a vengeful and jealous God – but we remain a vengeful and jealous society. From Manus to Weinstein, society continues to abuse, and abandon. These stories aren’t present on Jacobs’ stage, but they course between the silences.
Jacobs trusts in the intelligence of children to engage in the intensity of these performances – and in the intensity of the world – but she also trusts the audience to engage with intelligence and intensity. Or, perhaps, she trusts the audience to realise they won’t always be able to engage with every element of the work, and the beauty is in the strive. It is okay to falter and fail, to feel unsure, to question what, exactly, you are to make of it.
By constructing these image-driven worlds around bodies of children, Jacobs creates theatre to be mulled over and wrestled with. It is not possible to understand it all in the theatre because, perhaps, it doesn’t only exist in the theatre. These images distil in our brains, playing over each other, morphing into new shapes and forms. As Book of Exodus is representative, non-literal and non-linear, so too become our memories. Theatre exists for us only as we remake it in our minds, over months and years – the work is only as successful as the audience allows its meditation. The violence continues in the spaces between our thoughts.