Review: A Golem Story ~ theatre notes

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Review: A Golem Story

*Spoiler alert*

In A Golem Story, Michael Kantor and Lally Katz reach into Judaeic folklore and mystic traditions, fashioning a work of theatre which is at once outstandingly beautiful and frustratingly perplexing. Mounted in the Merlyn, this is one of Kantor's most compellingly conceived works. The action occurs in a simulcrum of a candle-lit 16th century Prague synagogue, sketched by a scaffolding of iron geometry and bare wood, the sole decoration an elaborate candelabra. The performance is punctuated by Hebrew and Yiddish songs, led by cantor Michel Laloum, so the whole work has the gravity of religious ritual.

Ambitious, starkly simple and often brilliantly performed, I still felt naggingly that something was missing. I missed a sense of cross-grained complexity, a counter-argument, that at first I attributed to Katz's text. The odd thing is that the text reads with more complexity than it performs. I suspect that as theatre, the whole has the air of a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total artwork (first theorised, ironically enough given the subject matter, by anti-Semite Richard Wagner) in which all elements are sternly subordinated to a single idea, and that this has the effect of flattening out some of the textual ambiguities.

A Golem Story is based on the most enduring of golem legends, the Golem of Prague, which exists in many variations (a major source, peculiarly enough, is called the Katz manuscript). Most literary scholars date the legend to around the 1750s. It runs more or less like this: under the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II in the 1500s, the chief Rabbi of Prague, Rabbi Loew, created a golem from the mud of the Vltava River to protect Jews against anti-Semitic pogroms. A golem is an automaton activited to life by language: in this version, the golem is given life by the name of God inscribed in a tablet kept in its mouth, its chem, and is destroyed when the tablet is removed; in others, the word Emet (meaning truth or reality) is inscribed on its forehead, and the Rabbi destroys the golem by rubbing out its first letter, making the word Met (death).

The Golem legend has inspired writers from Mary Shelley to China Mieville. It persists for its compelling metaphor, in which man's hubristic creation of sentience destroys him. Most often it's a narrative of transgression, as in Frankenstein, when a scientist follows his highest idealisms, only to create a misunderstood monster. Likewise, the Golem of Prague escapes the Rabbi's control and rampages murderously through the city killing Gentiles and, in some versions, its creators. It's a legend which reaches deeply into Judaic mysticism, and especially into the Kabbalah, a mindbendingly complex collection of esoteric lore which originated in 13th century Europe. The Kabbalah weaves a dizzying range of influences, including Gnosticism and Neo-Platonism, into Jewish theosophy. Central to the Kabbalah is the Sefer Yesirah (The Book of Creation), a text which dates from somewhere between the 1st and 6th centuries, in which are instructions for making a golem.

The last director to investigate these traditions in Melbourne was Barrie Kosky, in his early works for Gilgul in the 1990s, and here Kantor demonstrates that he is by no means an identikit of Kosky: this is a vastly different theatrical take on the same material. Kosky's interest in mysticism is evident in almost all his work: it manifests as a fascination with ecstatic states, in the uniting of the sacred and the profane. Kantor is, unexpectedly perhaps, more interested in the aesthetic shapes of ritual and, perhaps even more unexpectedly, in the word itself. This is not a theatre of irrational extremity, but of rational argument.

Katz's text is a parable of power, politics and transgression. My first thought was that there seemed to be a remarkable absence of Katz: there is little of that sense of barely restrained anarchic imaginings and unexpected collisions that characterise her work so far. Instead, she creates a disciplined, episodic narrative that draws on a number of golem stories and gives a contemporary twist. The play works as a fable, with each character carrying a symbolic charge: the Rabbi (Brian Lipson), the Student Amos (Dan Spielman), the woman Ahava (Yael Stone), the Guard (Greg Stone) and the Emperor (Mark Jones). So the Rabbi represents one argument about Judaeism and God, Amos another, the Guard represents the anti-Semitic Gentile, the Emperor the civilised Gentile, and Ahava - her name one letter away from the Hebrew for Eve - represents Woman.

None of these representations is quite so stark as written here, as I'll tease out below. But it does ask for an allegorical reading, and here I found myself confused and troubled. Although it can be read as a story about the perils of technology - genetic experiment, nuclear power - it's presented as a specifically Jewish story, exploring the dilemma of a persecuted people. The program features a quote from a children's book which comments: "Considering the Jewish people's long history of conflict and suffering, it is no surprise that the legend of the Golem, in which massive physical strength defeats overwhelming persecution, remains one of the most powerful traditional stories". And from there, it's a short step to contemporary Israel, which perhaps is its own Golem: the armed state lurching out of control into destruction.

Most reductively, it can be construed as a parable of Zionist militarism; and here the character of the Guard is especially problematic. The least nuanced of all the characters, he is a fanatic anti-Semite, driven by the mingled loathing and desire that constitutes hatred. When the Emperor decrees that the Blood Libel - the canard that Jews killed Gentile children to drain their blood for religious rituals - can only be reported by parents, he prepares to kill his own son, in order to unleash the slaughter of the Jews of the city.

The Guard's murder of his own child is so close to claims that Arabs slaughter their own children in terrorist attacks or, closer to home, to the Children Overboard affair, that it pulled me up short. In mediaeval Europe, Jewish communities were often accused baselessly of the murder of dead or disappeared children, but I don't know of any mediaeval precedent of Gentile parents killing their own children in order to libel Jews. (The closest is accounts, during the Crusades, of Jewish parents killing their own children and themselves, to save them being murdered by Crusaders.) As in these contemporary narratives of Arabs, the Guard is driven by reasonless, fanatical hatred.

Yet there is another major thread in the text - that of misogyny - which remains subliminal in the production, and which is perhaps the missing counter-argument. Most of the time it exists as a puzzle: it only becomes clear towards the end, when you realise that in this world, women are completely absent, except in the form that men have created: the feminine.

The play opens as Ahava wakes painfully from unconsciousness. She is told by the Rabbi that she has been possessed by a Dybbuk, the ghost of her former fiance, Israel Hasidim, who cut his own throat. Ahava herself has no memory of anything: she has no self, and worst of all, no sense of God. Throughout the play this emptiness exists as sexual longing: she pleads with both the Guard and Amos to touch her, to fill her up. The only female character in the play, she exists as sexual and spiritual absence. Amos, the student, regards her with terror as a blasphemy who will bring down destruction on the Jewish people. The only creature who responds to her panicked desire is the Golem.

The source of this emptiness only becomes clear towards the end of the play, when we find out that Ahava is a Golem herself, created by Israel Hasidim. Ahava is not a person, but an object, created by man to answer his own desires. She represents not so much Woman as the Feminine, the male-created sex: and as an object or chattel, she is the subject of bickering: the Emperor claims she is his commissioned artwork, while the Rabbi claims her for himself.

This twist is drawn from another Golem legend, but it suggests the rather more benign myth of Pygmalion, the sculptor who makes a woman of ivory so beautiful that he falls in love with it. For me it most compellingly recalls the Welsh myth of Blodeuwedd, one of the tales from the Mabinogion. Blodeuwedd was made out of flowers by the wizard Gwydion, to be a wife for the king Llew Llaw Gyffes. Blodeuwedd has an affair with Gronw Pebyr, together they plot to murder Llew, and as punishment Blodeuwedd is turned into an owl. Here the feminine turns deadly, defying the will that creates her in her will to selfhood. In A Golem Story, this doesn't become explicit until the very end, when Ahava claims her selfhood. She rejects her status as object and claims her place as a creator: "All these men - these men from God - but no man but the Golem loved me. I was made by them. But only the one I made held me."

The Guard's fanatic anti-Semitism becomes explicable when read as a form of misogyny. In her book Powers of Horror, Julie Kristeva links misogyny and anti-Semitism closely: she reads it as the forcible expulsion of the Other, as a symbol of the filth rejected from the self. The Jew and the Feminine are both, in this theory, expressions of the same horror. "There looms, within abjection, one of those dark, violent revolts of being ... a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the hope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable... The abject has only one quality of being - that of being opposed to the I." The master ego defines itself, in fact grounds its being, on what it rejects. "I sometimes wonder," muses the Guard earlier in the play, "if my elder son is more female..."

And here is the click, the mechanism of violence: the Guard's loathing of Jews and the violence against his own son emerges from the same source. "It is not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection, but what disturbs identity, system, order," says Kristeva. "What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite..." The Golem, poised between humanity and inanimate mud, life and death, male and female, is this ambiguity personified. So, as it happens, is the Emperor, whose almost amoral passion for art and hunger for knowledge is presented as feminine, even camp. Between the Golem and the Emperor are the Rabbi and his student: Amos will have no truck with this ambiguity, whereas the pragmatic Rabbi is prepared to negotiate. But in their rejection of the female, they are closer to the Guard than either would like to admit.

This thread is certainly present in the play (although it still seems unclear to me, perhaps because of the complete absence of an actual woman) but it sinks almost to invisibility under the production. I picked it out afterwards, thinking backwards from the end and from reading the text; and I know I wasn't inattentive while I was watching. This is partly because the episodic argument of the text is fragmented by the songs. Sometimes the singing acts as a kind of oratorio, and replaces action: at these points, especially in the final song (A Pastochl A Troimer, a song which berates God for His lack of care and calls for His burial), I found my inability to understand the words critical. The sheer beauty of the voices and performances paradoxically intensifies this sense of confusion. The critique of militarised masculism that is embodied in Ahava is obscured by a sense of reverence for the very things criticised.

It certainly makes for a fascinating evening of theatre. For all my reservations, I think A Golem Story demonstrates Kantor's strengths as a director: and the performances, by a top-rate cast, are compelling. It's an especial treat to see Dan Spielman back on stage - a scene where he describes the Golem's attack on the soldiers of Prague is a highlight - and Yael Stone's anguished performance physicalises the agony of growing consciousness. In Anna Cordingley and Paul Jackson's stunning design, the Golem is represented by a beam of light, a simple solution to a difficult theatrical problem. It's elegant, beautiful and powerful; perhaps too elegant, beautiful and powerful. Definitely not to be missed.

Photos: Top: Yael Stone in A Golem Story; bottom (foreground) Yael Stone, (back) Mark Jones and Brian Lipson. Photos: Pia Johnson

A Golem Story, by Lally Katz, directed by Michael Kantor. Sets and costumes by Anna Cordingley, lighting by Paul Jackson, musical direction and vocal arrangements by Mark Jones, Jewish/religious consultant Michel Laloum. Performed by Nicholas De Rossos, Joshua Gordon, Mark Jones, Michel Laloum, Brian Lipson, Dan Spielman, Greg Stone and Yael Stone. Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse Theatre, until July 2.

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