‘What will become of the wonder-workers in a world of electric light?’ It’s an ironic question in this 1914 classic of Jewish theatre which pitches us into a world of sacred pacts, ancient texts, dream visitors and other manifestations from the spirit world.
The opening scene recalls the Barbara Streisand film Yentl, as a group of students dispute the miraculous feats performed by legendary rabbis. A tormented wraith-like youth called Chonen looks on, interrupting only to remind the students that the point of the miracles is to demonstrate the power of religion, not to gather riches. In fact, he’s still soaked from the cold baths he’s been taking to ‘purify’ himself of a passion for Leah, daughter to local rabbi Sender, who is seeking to marry her into a rich family.
Leah causes a stir when she arrives in the off-limits-to-females yeshiva. Explaining she has come to inspect a curtain she’s going to replace in honour of her dead mother, she really needs an excuse to speak to Chonen, with whom she’s in love. When her father announces he’s found a suitable husband for Leah, Chonen, weakened by fasting and over-studying of the Kabbalah, falls to the ground and dies.
We learned from an earlier interruption that the souls of those who die young become dybbuks and enter the bodies of the living. When Leah announces on the eve of her nuptials that she will visit the adjacent graveyard, where Chonen is buried, to invite the spirit of her mother to the wedding, expectations are raised for some supernatural surprises.
Director Eve Leigh wisely plays down the horror aspects of this tale of demonic possession, although suddenly-doused candles and interrupted music create a sense of things lurking in the shadows and heighten the tense atmosphere created by the intimate theatre space.
Causing the the entwined bodies of Leah and Chonen to speak together is an excellent device to convey the ghostly possession, drawing admirably lithe performances from the lead actors. Statements seem to explode in physical spasms from the crouched pair, creating a frightening sense of pent-up energy in the contorted limbs.
Edward Hogg is convincing eerie as the wild-locked demented lover turned dybbuk, with a perfect contrast in the peachy-complexioned Jasmina Stoic as the dreamy Leah. Supporting roles were somewhat underwritten, and the Hassidic rabbi called in to perform the Kabbalistic rites for the exorcism lacked the energy for the necessary balance between good and evil forces. Although this was a pared-down production, paced to keep audience interest high, more effort could have been made with the costume design, especially for the men. A dapper grey-suited Spender looking as if he’d just stepped off Canary Wharf in a setting that otherwise evoked the original Russian shtetl.
Anyone looking for topical themes will be disappointedby the reactionary conclusion;the play shifts from the thwarted lovers to the broken contract between men as Spender's shady past is revealed. However, the ending is an unexpected surprise and there are enough references to arcane mysteries and a universe interpretable only by wizard-like authorities to satisfy current tastes for the fantastic. The wonder-workers, it seems, are as popular as ever.