‘This production is perhaps at its most eloquent when it is at its most inarticulate’: Robert Reid on M: Kaddish for the Children at Footscray Community Arts Centre
Deborah Leiser Moore’s M: Kaddish for the Children reimagines the story of Medea, viewing Euripides’ play through a post-dramatic lens. According to Leiser-Moore, Medea is the victim of the original play’s misogynistic text, which presents her first as an exotic prize brought home by Jason, a trophy of conquest like the Golden Fleece, and then as the irrational and jealous jilted woman who takes her revenge by committing that most heinous of matriarchal crimes, killing her own children. Leiser-Moore’s production, as it is at pains to make clear, strives to present not history but “her-story.”
The visual choices made throughout the show are marked by stark lighting and effective symbolism. This production is perhaps at its most eloquent when it is at its most inarticulate: it might have spoken more clearly had it remained a visual feast, as the text sadly doesn’t measure up to the rigour applied to the symbolism of the movement and design.
Presented in association with the Jewish Museum Australia, M: Kaddish for the Children is staged in the performance space at the Footscray Community Arts Centre as part of their 2019 Women, Art and Politics season. We are welcomed by the program manager Bernadette Fitzgerald and enter the space through the back door, passing through the usually off-limits administrative areas of the FCAC. It suggests a deprivileged behind-the-scenes access that echoes the hidden expenses of “women’s work”.
Before we enter, we are told that the first 10 minutes or so of the performance will be participatory and immersive: while the performers will be present, carrying out their first actions, we are free to move around the space and explore it, like a museum. Once inside, however, there is little to explore.
Richard Moore is at one end on a platform, exercising on a rowing machine, and Leiser-Moore is at the other, digging into a pile of grey tan bark with a shovel, which I assumed from the original play represents a funeral cairn. Other than this, there’s a record player playing nostalgic tunes of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s that Moore intermittently changes before finally setting on Led Zeppelin (Whole Lotta Love, which is a nice touch) and a stand with cooking ingredients and a small portable stove. The space is dominated by a large pile of tanbark built up in the centre. The smell of woodchips is strong.
Some (including me) sit fairly quickly, despite the black velvet ropes that symbolically block the seating banks, but most of the audience, in the absence of anything else to do, create a circle around the central hill of tanbark and watch as Leiser-Moore and Moore go through their motions. This patient waiting and watching takes on a ritual quality, especially in the light of the show’s title.
The Mourner’s Kaddish is a Jewish prayer of grieving that must be performed publicly, never in private. The community comes together to mourn and recite the prayer for 11 months after the death of a loved one. It demonstrates that, despite their loss, the mourners still honour and praise god. The solemn circle of audience members watches with the kind of respectful silence that might attend an actual Kaddish, allowing space for the parents’ grief. The repetitive nature of the digging and the rowing both summon domestic expressions of sublimated grieving and avoidance, processing by doing.
Eventually Leiser-Moore moves up onto the larger pile and digs out a white shroud which she drags over herself. She’s joined by Moore, who carries a bowl to wash her feet, hands and head, a purification ritual which she also performs for him. This becomes a wild dance as they begin to clap in time to the music (which has become a traditional song rather than the Led Zep): they clasp hands and swing each other around as the audience claps along, becoming hesitant in its participation, as it’s not entirely clear when we should stop. The two performers finally invite the audience to sit by removing the ropes and ushering us to our seats.
We are introduced to the text first by a speech delivered by Moore that contextualises the work some historical background on Euripides. Leiser-Moore, performing somewhere in between Medea and herself, stands at the chopping board and with a large butcher’s cleaver, hacking at a large bunch of herbs (that looked like rosemary from where I was sitting, symbolic of remembrance of the dead).
Occasionally she impatiently urges Moore – who is never quite Jason and never quite himself – to get on with it. It’s not clear from the text, although it’s mentioned in the program notes, that Leiser-Moore and Moore are a husband and wife team, and in this speech Moore comments that their marriage has become has become poisonous. It’s hard to read the doubling between the life of the actors and the characters and not feel a nod towards the reality, a nod that reflects not on their marriage in particular, but on marriage generally.
The production is full of post-dramatic schtick. Video projections of Leiser-Moore’s work at the chopping block are echoed by projections of scenes from cinematic productions of Medea (through which Leiser-Moore huffs and rolls her eyes). The sound of water sloshing around in the rowing machine, which uses water to act as a resistance to its hand driven turbine, permeates the space, constantly calling to mind the journey of the Argo and the distance grieving and aggrieved parents must travel from their devastation to any kind of recovery. Popular songs and opera comment on moments as they pass and each section is presented as disconnected elements of performative grieving.
Again the moments that are the clearest are those without dialogue. Leiser-Moore climbs onto the pile of bark and digs out four children’s merry-go-round toys, which she winds up and lets go, their simple melodies chiming discordantly. She drags a long strip of red cloth from her mouth, vomiting her torment into her hands, tears it in half and winds it around her arm echoing a shel yad, the arm-strap of a Tefillah wrapped around the arm, hand and fingers.
Meanwhile, Moore rows on, or lies flat on his back wearing a singlet with a crude joke printed on it watching scenes form the Pasolini production of Medea. She boils eggs, fertility symbols rendered into symbols of the dead. She invites two women from the audience to join her in peeling the shells, while Moore remains prone and almost comfortable on the other side of the pile. This moment underlines the gendered process of grieving: the women are communal, together in the kitchen, while the man is on his own, silently waiting for time to pass until he can call out “what’s for dinner?”
Sadly, this potent physical and symbolic work is a undermined by the text. A scattering of jokes through the performance feel a touch undergraduate (“Motherfucker!” cries Moore. “We’re doing Medea, not Oedipus,” retorts Leiser-Moore). Much of the comment on the original drips with sarcasm but lacks subtlety (“There should be no female sex,” Moore quotes from the original text, snarling, “You do know that text was written by a man.”
In his introduction, Moore tells us that he has been told that of late “the lines of the age-old battle between the sexes have been redrawn”, to which Leiser-Moore answers “it only took two and a half thousand years”. She insists that this will not be history, but her-story (which again is repeated in the program notes and marketing material). While the sentiment and the rage feels contemporary, its expression here feels dated, the resurrected ghosts of old battles, battles that are being fought today in new and more developed ways.
In the same vein, though there are depths of grief plumbed in the silent rituals and the incoherent vocalisations (Moore barks like a pained and frightened dog at Leiser-Moore while he rows, and she shouts “stroke stroke stroke” at him over and over through a megaphone), the spoken text feels more like the bitter condemnation of divorced parents slinging recriminations at each other. The children seem the least of their concerns.
For a work that is so prominently titled Kaddish for the Children and which, according the program notes and marketing, summons the lost and sacrificed children of refugees, there seems to be precious little real grief for the dead children who are presumably buried under the mounds of playground tanbark. Overall the discourse feels confused. This Medea certainly sees herself as a victim of the casual infidelity of her husband, but I can’t help but feel for the children who are the victims of both their parents’ colossal selfishness, and who remain voiceless and unrepresented. Their absence is the loudest part of the show.
At the end of the Mourner’s Kaddish, the mourners and the Rabbi traditionally call for peace, but this supplication is absent from this work. Instead, Leiser-Moore ascends into the darkness of the theatre ceiling in a cherry picker, an almost literal Deus ex Machina. M: Kaddish for the Children ends up being a strong work that needs to be stronger, that speaks loudest when it speaks least. i
M: Kaddish for the Children, written, directed and produced by Deborah Leiser-Moore and Richard Moore. Choreography by Israel Aloni, sound and live musix mix by Jacques Soddell. Vocal coach and voice of the Kaddish, Susan Bamford Caleo. Lighting by Ash Buchannan. Performed by Deboerah Leiser-Moore and Richard Moore. Presented by Tashmadada at the Footscray Community Arts Centre. Until March 9. Bookings http://footscrayarts.com/event/m-kaddish-for-the-children/