Theatre review: A Golem Story

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Dear Dad

A Golem is an amorphous form fashioned from mud. It can be brought to life by God — as is the case with Adam — or, as Jewish tradition has it, by the holiest man of God. But, however holy the man is, the tradition goes on to say, a being created by him will be but a shadow of a being created by God. Either way, a Golem is anything “incomplete”; “a mass, a substance” — without life.

Through A Golem Story, director Michael Kantor and playwright Lally Katz invite us to ruminate on the consequences of pushing our boundaries too far in our efforts to invent or create. By introducing a woman into the original male-dominated myth and investing in her, desires that we will find all too familiar, Katz explores how close we come to resembling a Golem, without the presence of God.

It is Prague in 1580. Amidst a harmony of stirring prayers, a young woman, Ahava (Yael Stone), writhes from sleep to find herself in a synagogue. Meeting with the Rabbi (Brian Lipson), she recollects her near-marriage to a would-be-husband whom she is told had killed himself — but nothing else before that. She recounts the sensation of sharing her body with his spirit — it gradually encroached on her inner space, then her vision and her thoughts — before it grew so big she was forced out altogether. Learning that she was exorcised by the Rabbi and his student, Amos (Dan Spielman), Ahava reveals a deep-seated void — a blank in any knowledge of God.

Katz’s writing is visceral and muscular; there is a raw physicality about her engagement with the emotional and spiritual dimensions that energises her lines and almost paints a portrait of those inner selves.

Her numinous tale unfolds against a backdrop of A Golem Story as it is told in Jewish folklore. The Jews are heavily persecuted by the Gentiles so that when Christian children start to go missing and then found dead, drained of blood, the finger of blame is pointed squarely at the Jews. The reigning Emperor decrees the purging of the Ghetto.

But Anna Cordingley’s Ghetto is no ghetto — not the sort in slums, anyway. Decked out in dark timber and mostly dim, except for Paul Jackson’s superb atmospheric lighting and a chandelier of real candles, the set design — spartan and sombre notwithstanding — is something approaching stylish. While the wailing wall looming at the back of the stage conjures a certain mystique, laurels no doubt go to Mark Jones’ magnificent score — silky and rich with Yiddish melodies, Kabalistic ritual and Hebrew prayer. The ambient mood is at once elegant, gloomy and sensual.

Still, it is here where the Rabbi, aided by Ahava, moulds a Golem —  they dip their hands into a river of mud under the wooden slats — into (literally, a light of) life to fend off the threat of impending destruction.

Lipson gives the Rabbi an outstanding rendition. His animated reaction to his student’s reporting of the Golem’s triumph is especially exquisite. Spielman’s jittery Amos is convincing as the God-fearing and tentative disciple. And while Greg Stone swaggers on as the hatred-filled Guard ready to sacrifice his own child for the decimation of the Jews, Mark Jones’ pragmatic Emperor is brilliant and scorchingly funny. Even Ondrus, the Guard’s elder son (Nicholas De Rossos this evening) is remarkably poised. Nevertheless, it is Yael Stone’s Ahava who leaves the deepest impression with her intense yearnings. Vividly, she depicts how a being without God desires another man, a ghost or her own creation to fill an inner vacuum.

Kantor orchestrates his matter sensitively — but not at all gently. While this is a Jewish tale for Jewish people, he demonstrates that the real perpetrator of chaos is we who pride ourselves on our capacity to invent. He reminds us that too often our own creations become something way beyond our control.

Katz, too, is uncompromising. Deftly, she holds a mirror to our inner selves. In the absence of God, we are “incomplete”; “a mass, a substance” — without life: A Golem Story.