The biblical Book of Exodus tells story of the children of Israel and their liberation from slavery in Egypt. Moses, who as a child is nearly killed, tries to convince the Pharoah to free the Israelites. God sends ten plagues (rivers of blood, plagues of frogs, etc.) to the Egyptians, and Moses leads the Israelites to the desert and freedom, where they receive the Ten Commandments.
Melbourne-based theatre company Fraught Outfit’s retelling of the tale, showing at Theatre Works in Melbourne, opens with a blackout, sudden and total. The lights come up on Kate Davis’s set, a snowy-looking stage covered in ragged pieces of white Styrofoam against a white textured backdrop. The Styrofoam pieces suggest manna, “a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground”. In the Old Testament, manna is the bread with which God feeds the Israelites during their 40-year journey across the desert. It appears each morning, except on the Sabbath.
The Book of Exodus is the final instalment in Fraught Outfit’s “Innocence Trilogy,” which includes On the Bodily Education of Young Girls (2013) and The Bacchae (2016). Part I of The Book of Exodus opened this month, with Part II to be staged at Theatre Works in October 2017.
Where the biblical Book of Exodus traces the unification of the Israelites as a people, Fraught Outfit’s production shows children performing and documenting the story at a distant remove. Beautifully executed but sometimes unclear, the show left me reaching for the source text and wondering whether, in so doing, I had walked into a trap.
God commands Moses to preserve a small amount of manna
throughout your generations, in order that they may see the food with which I fed you in the wilderness, when I brought you out of Egypt.
But aside from this manna saved for remembrance, the Israelites are not to preserve it: each person is to take only as much as they need. Those who try to save the food for the next day (again, except for the Sabbath) find it stinks and gets maggots in it.
Styrofoam is traditionally used in food packaging, a contemporary emblem of having more than we need. Famously non-biodegradable, Styrofoam’s prominence in The Book of Exodus aligns remembrance with forms of waste that imperil our future. Are the children of Israel buried under the airy weight of a command to remember?
Two child performers (Sol Feldman and Tarana Verma in the showing I saw) act out the story. The Styrofoam set is obstacle, playpen, and resource, and they began the show buried under it. First Feldman and then Verma worked their ways out from under the Styrofoam, dressed respectively as a little old woman and little old man. Rubber masks, wigs, robes, and the bent postures and struggling gaits of the performers showed old age.
Authors: Sarah Balkin, Lecturer, English and Theatre Studies, University of Melbourne