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Feminist Dybbuks in Melbourne: Possession, Desire and Voice

Nicola Menser Hearn

INTRODUCTION

In August 2018, Australian theatre maker and director Samara Hersch, along with Chamber Made, a company operating at the ‘nexus of contemporary performance, music and sound’, presented Dybbuks – a production in three acts exploring ideas of possession; of women being with the dead; of desire, ritual, and voice.



1.

On a wet and gloomy late winter evening my girlfriend and I made the drive across Melbourne to see Dybbuks at Theatre Works, St Kilda. 1 1 Hersch, S. (dir) & Chamber Made (2018). Dybbuks [Programme], Theatre Works, Melbourne, Australia. The Dybbuk (1913-16), written by author, ethnographer, and activist S. Ansky, is Yiddish canon. Hersch’s Dybbuks zeroes in on certain elements of the original text, and draws out specific themes, images, and sounds. Dybbuks is abject, erotic, transformative, and at times terrifying theater. The production is about desire, and female desire explicitly. Loss is a central theme of the production: loss of the desired; loss of self to possession; loss of agency through religion and cultural obligation; loss of stability, including for the audience. The auditory elements of the production at times send the audience spinning with the sounds of possession embodied: through voice work from the performers and choir, and the accompaniment of clarinet, keys, and violin.

My experience of the production began with entering the theatre foyer, where DIY print-outs of photographs, cast lists, and program notes from past Melbourne productions of S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk were displayed on a far wall: productions from 1938 (Dir. Jacob Waislitz), 1957 (Dir. Yankev Waislitz), and 1991 (Dir. Barrie Kosky). On the adjoining wall, photos and text from the Mikvah Project gave context to Act 2 of the show, in which a woman bathes naked in the mikvah, dunking her head three times. And on a table in the corner, a copy of an academic paper about the music of Aviva Endean, clarinettist in the production, and her work “Lehadlik,” “exploring the complex relationship between the player, a Jewish woman living in Australia, and traditional Jewish culture and rituals.” The paper was by Shoshana Rosenberg, herself an Australia-based queer, transgender, Jewish musician and researcher. 2 2 Rosenberg, S. (2018). “Lehadlik”: Radical Jewish Music, Gender and Disidentification in Aviva Endean’s Work. Directions of New Music (2). I took each of these elements as an invitation to consider the history and contemporary context surrounding Hersch’s production.

Dybbuks is a performance in three acts. The audience is seated in the round, the staging stark. At various times we are surrounded by or sitting behind the chorus, a women’s choir singing in Yiddish, made up of members of Melbourne’s Jewish community. In Act 1 a pre-recorded spoken text plays as two shrouded figures slowly embrace atop a central stage ensconced in a transparent plastic curtain; the text begins as monologue, as a woman mourns the loss of her lover and expresses her desire to go to be with his body in the graveyard. Soon the lover’s voice, a man’s, joins her in an ecstatic and erotic climax.

In Act 2, the performers undress onstage and it is revealed that they are both women. One of the performers, the younger woman, wraps herself in a bright white bathrobe, and begins cleaning her teeth, brushing her hair, preparing her body to be bathed; meanwhile, the second performer, who remains masked, dresses herself in smock and tikhl, and begins to fastidiously clean the tiles of the mikvah that has appeared from under the platform in the center of the stage. All of this cleaning, scrubbing, and brushing is captured by multiple microphones; these small rhythmic sounds fill the theater space, now devoid of any dialogue. The choir begins slowly walking onto the stage in groups of two, carrying hot jugs of water (I can smell and see the steam as it passes me, wafting as a ghost) to fill the ritual bath. Now clean, the younger woman strips naked and is guided by the older woman into the mikvah. A quiet prayer is said, and she dunks her head three times, bringing it back with such force that her long hair sprays water backward, hitting the plastic curtain. The mikvah is covered again, and she lies atop it. A low growl enters her body as she becomes possessed, writhing, contorting, and pulsating with rage and erotic energy to sound and music from the musicians. This is a phenomenal performance from trained dancer Lauren Langlois, who manages to make the presence of her body, so small in the beginning of this Act, become large and commanding during the possession.

In Act 3, the stage is bathed in red light as the choir enters again with veiled faces, to place stones atop the central platform, in mourning for a death. Jenny Barnes, vocalist, steps onto the stage and with phenomenal guttural power speaks in tongues, howls, and screams as the soundscape is heightened by the live music and song of the choir. This turn to possession and exorcism is as violent as it is shocking. The Dybbuk is among us.

2.

A few weeks after seeing Dybbuks, I had the exciting opportunity to sit down with Samara Hersch over Skype to talk about the production, Yiddish in Melbourne, feminist reimagining of texts, and multi-spatial time and history in diaspora. As a queer researcher myself, I was interested to hear her thoughts about the intersections between Yiddish language, queer temporality, and contemporary Jewish cultural production. What follows is a condensed transcript of our conversation.

NH: What was the departure point for Dybbuks?

SH: It [the production] still baffles me. I don’t really understand what we made, or how it came to be… it really wasn’t trying to follow a narrative, even though I think a lot of people who reviewed it tried to give it a narrative form. ‘Oh, it starts with this and then this and then this.’ But actually it was never the intention, it was really a case of building three different, say, responses to the idea of possession, or women being with the dead, the female body inhabiting the dead. So in a way we never… they were really just three different things and then we put them together, and of course they amount to something else, and something else becomes apparent. But it still surprised me, you know? What have we made?

NH: Can you explain your decision to have information about past productions of The Dybbuk in the foyer?

SH: It was about thinking about possession as a haunting, how a community gets possessed by stories. Or why do certain stories keep feeling relevant or contemporary? The 1957 production, at Kadimah in Carlton, was performed by Helena Jacobs. I did this Dybbuk event [a previous theater piece Samara curated that looked at The Dybbuk and other stories inspired by dybbuks] at the Malthouse Theatre, which was research for my later piece Dybbuks, and Helena Jacobs attended. Tomi [Prior, herself in the 1991 production of The Dybbuk] suggested Helena and I meet for a conversation about The Dybbuk. What struck me about our conversation was that in Helena’s production, she never really spoke. I asked her, ‘How did you do this scene? How did you do that scene?’ and she explained that it was very much as though the man spoke through her in the possession, and she lip-synced. This struck me as problematic. In 2018, what does it mean for a woman to be silent? And what does it mean for the man to make sound?

I’ve been thinking about past productions. The last one was in the ‘90s, and that was quite long ago. Yet it haunts us to this day; everybody still talks about that production like it was yesterday. Everyone has this memory of it in a way that I’ve never experienced a production … it’s very rare that people still remember it so vividly. It felt like there was something spooky or strange about the way that this story is not only about possession, but also has the capacity to possess.

Video footage of Samara Hersch’s Dybbuk(s) event/creative development at the Malthouse Theater, referenced above.

NH: In her Yiddish Celluloid Closet, Eve Sicular does a queer reading of the 1937 Polish Yiddish-language film version of The Dybbuk (Dir. Michał Waszyński). 3 3 Sicular, E (2002). “Outing the Archives: From the Celluloid Closet to Isle of Klezbos.” In Shneer, D and Aviv, C (eds), Queer Jews (pp. 199-214). New York: Routledge. In her reading Sicular departs from gendered discussions of a man’s spirit inhabiting a woman’s body, and centers on the “homoerotic, or certainly homosocial” relationship between the two fathers of our star-crossed lovers, Sender and Nisn. The two men, particularly as characterized in the film, share an intimately close bond. The promise they make to each other, that their soon-to-be-born children will one day marry (if one is a boy and one is a girl), can be read as a latent desire for each other, and to themselves to be married/be together. Sicular also draws our attention to a rather steamy scene of young Khanan in the mikvah, which is shot with an undeniably erotic camera-gaze.

SH: I looked at [The Dybbuk] through female desire. I was thinking about how Leah really is transgressive in that she goes to the cemetery before her wedding, and asks this lover, or this soulmate or however one sees him, to come to her wedding. And he comes, and then she chooses to be with him, even despite the exorcism. So in a way there’s a lot of resistance to social order, or to the rules, from her. And I found that really exciting, and thinking about what would be a contemporary voice around that type of resistance. So, resisting boundaries in Act 1, it was thinking about desire in the sense of transgression or in the sense of the full capacity of the female body. To inhabit things like the dead or the ugly or the uncontainable. And to embrace that, instead of clean that away, or control that, or disappear that. But to just let it all have space.

NH: Female bodies and female desire, it’s still so powerful to have that kind of rawness, grotesqueness, abject-ness played out through a female body. Rather than culturally played onto a female body. Like the body speaking back.

SH: The most exciting moment of Act 2 was when all the women in the choir bring in the water: an intergenerational bearing-witness to the ritual, women watching women. A young naked body with older bodies. It became about aging bodies as well, and rites of passage that we encounter as women.

NH: The choir walking past the audience, down the aisles and you can see and smell the steam coming from that hot water: this is a very sensory experience of ritual and culture.

SH: I really like what you say about queer time and Yiddish. 4 4 I began this interview with Samara by talking about my upcoming doctoral research, which looks at queer Yiddishkeit in Australia, and using theories of queer temporalities as a useful lens to consider the non-linear and multi-spatial time of queer Yiddish identity and culture-making in contemporary and historic contexts. See also the 2016 Zohar Weiman-Kelman interview with In geveb discussing Yiddish and queerness in terms of choice. Just as queerness can, the Yiddish language can be considered as non-reproducing (in terms of native secular speakers), but it is also now learnt primarily as a chosen language: a chosen mameloshn, or mother-tongue. Coming back to time, Act 1 really slows things down. And in Act 2 we’re in this real time. That’s potentially anxiety-inducing for the audience. The show is very much stretching time, and delaying time. There are not binary lines between alive or dead; there is fluidity around how we are in the world.

NH: Yes, it plays with non-linear time, different ways of doing time and time existing, and that in relation to culture and bodies and place.

SH: It felt important that there’s everyday time, and ritual time, and that you watch the transition. So even in Act 2, cleaning the body is just something very basic: it’s of this world. But then, you say a prayer and dunk yourself three times, and suddenly you’re in a different time, you’re in a ritual time, you’re in something else. And the same with the opening of the show. That the choir can be chatting, and talking about bagels and smoked salmon, and what they’re going to make for Sunday lunch. But then we start singing “Dona Dona,” and we move into a different time. We’re in a performance time… how thinly lined those two times are.

NH: Time changing and the atmosphere shifting in the theater was really amplified by the audience sitting in the round. Every now and then my focus would drift from the performance itself to looking at the faces of the other audience members across from me and how they’re reacting to the performance. Which is really interesting. Feeling like we were all, performers and audience members, in this together. It created interesting openings-up of thought, but also created boundaries to that as well. Particularly with the transparent but solid curtain hung around the stage space. It was interesting to watch the choir breaking through that, a boundary that we can see is there, but that we can see through as well.

SH: [The imagery of the figures in Act 1] was really about two bodies becoming one, and what that fusion might look like. The imagery evoked many things: it evoked [religious] iconography, but it also evoked a kind of sexuality, it evoked a kind of weirdness around the dead, a corpse. And also with the [spoken] text about a woman trying to become one, or spiritually becoming one with a corpse. What is it for two bodies to try and merge as one? The impossibility of that, of trying to come close but there is this boundary in the body that prevents that.

The whole text is trying to confuse and question gender binaries because we start to move pronouns around. She’s speaking about ‘her’ and ‘him’ and the confusion of what two bodies becoming one means—and that can mean many things. The man’s voice, his text is from Song of Songs, which is biblical poetry to God, who is presumably a man. She is speaking contemporary text she made up herself, but it is a text imbued with texts of the past: there are two temporalities within the text.

The production is called Dybbuks with an ‘s’; a plurality of what a dybbuk might mean for different people. And I think it’s important to connect the play to its origins, because these thoughts don’t come out of nowhere. They really come from a particular moment [they are informed by Ansky’s play]. And that that dreaming is still active, you know. We could just have looked at it as a kind of possession, and that’s really much more universal. But it felt important to connect it to [a particular moment and the history of] how this dreaming continued. Through diaspora, through memory, through song, through culture and rituals.

NH: This dreaming, from a very particular place and time. What could be more queerly temporal than that now existing in your show in Melbourne? The way that culture and time and memory move through trauma and move through bodies.

3.

In The Argonauts, her part-memoir, part critical inquiry about gender, desire, love, and family, Maggie Nelson writes of A.L. Steiner’s photographic series “Puppies and Babies”: “Some of the subjects…may not identify as queer, but it doesn’t matter: the installation queers them… It reminds us that any bodily experience can be made new and strange, that nothing we do in this life need have a lid crammed on it” (90-91). Where Nelson argues that Steiner’s photo-series queers the idea of family, I believe that Hersch’s Dybbuks queers its performers, along with ideas of culture and ritual. There are some limits to this reading, particularly in the apparent lack of trans or gender diverse performers, alongside an explicit intention to represent female and feminist voices. It may not be queer theatre, but there is still something queer about it. The show firmly placed itself within the context, or continuum, of what a production of The Dybbuk might look like, whilst successfully pushing at the boundaries of the text. It was a powerful and moving production. And it was imbued with a sense of that very Yiddish idea of doikayt, or hereness. Yiddish culture and life existing here, in Melbourne, now and through time.
MLA STYLE
Hearn, Nicola Menser. “Feminist Dybbuks in Melbourne: Possession, Desire and Voice.” In geveb, November 2018: https://ingeveb.org/blog/feminist-dybbuks-in-melbourne-possession-desire-and-voice.
CHICAGO STYLE
Hearn, Nicola Menser. “Feminist Dybbuks in Melbourne: Possession, Desire and Voice.” In geveb (November 2018): Accessed Dec 15, 2018.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nicola Menser Hearn

Nicola Menser Hearn is a researcher, filmmaker and artist living in Melbourne, Australia. More at https://www.nicolahearn.com/