FringeReview UK 2019
The Directors’ Festival 2019 is the third organized by Orange Tree Theatre with St Mary’s University, Twickenham. It features four plays: Tiego Rodrigues’ Sadness and Joy in the Life of Giraffes, Elinor Cook’s Pilgrims, Declan Greene’s Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography and Josh Azouz’s The Mikvah Project. The director here is Georgia Green. All designs are by Cory Shipp, lit by Chris McDonnell with sound design by Lex Kosanke. Till August 10th.
A man and a boy strip back the covers from a stage and a glittering blue-tiled pool appears, rippling water under pool lights. It’s a Mikvah, a prayer-cleansing immersion for (particularly Orthodox) Jews and it’s soon to be profaned. Eitan, 17 proclaims enthusiastically about Avi, 35:
‘You’ll love my friend. He’s got insane facial hair. I think people call it designer stubble. Imagine George Clooney, five inches shorter, 2 stone heavier and with a bulbous nose, that’s my friend.’
Storytelling narrative such as this sashays in this intensely, tenderly layered two-hander about forbidden attraction. Josh Azouz’s 2015 two-hander debut The Mikvah Project is more naturalistic than his bolder though equally tender Buggy Baby from 2018, a more ambitious, transgressive and theatrically magical work.
But within The Mikvah Project lies a shell of a tradition, filled with waters that can take anything. It’s a shimmering metaphor for being as realistic as a sink of water, which is also what it is. You come out different, and not always cleansed. As Avi considers what kind of Jews they are out of water he quips: ’Post-Modern Orthodox!’ That’s the trouble.
The Directors’ Festival 2019 is back – the third organized by Orange Tree Theatre with St Mary’s University. Azouz’s work blends a culture-within-culture, not a clash. Thus at a crucial point Avi tries a metaphor from football to explain himself:
‘Okay so you’re a gunner, an Arsenal fan since forever right, but there might be a moment in your life where that Gunner has a desire, an urge, a flash of madness where he supports Spurs, but as quick as that moment arrives, it then evaporates and he forgets his Spurs moment ever happened and he returns to wholeheartedly supporting Arsenal.’
Which of course is rubbish, Eitan reminds him and Avi knows it is. It’s unthinkable a Gunner supporter could have a lapse like that! So where does that leave Avi, or indeed Eitan? Avi, married at 27. Though he declares he’s taking things slowly, Avi’s desperately trying with his wife Leyla for a child, for her sake, praying in that pool for sperm-count; indeed hoping its watery agency can work and dipping his head in the water nine times, not the obligatory three. All it does though is cause Eitan to have an erection. Well no bother, Avi had those, he tells the embarrassed boy.
Up to a sudden moment in the pool Eitan’s seems the kind of nice raucous boy who’s fascinated by looking up Rachel’s skirts at school like everyone else, or laddishly fantasising about her breasts, all hetero-normative things he genuinely indulges in till he knows he can’t. There’s a crossover, a lurch to kiss Avi in the pool which horrifies Avi, played here by Robert Neumark Jones. Who starts calling him ‘mate’ in a laddish distancing, the language of hetero-strutting men.
It’s not just Eitan, he’s not just imagining it. Dylan Mason’s gawkish but strapping youth subverts normative roles; he looks like a junior footballer. Neumark Jones has the contained poise of a rock star, a man who quietly knows his attractiveness but never feels any urge to indulge it. You can see where this leads. Neumark Jones’ assurance, part-avuncular, part-vulnerable simmers in his reactions to Mason’s raw, zig-zag intensity.
The Mikvah Project is directed by Georgia Green with a tender pause and sense of unfolding a short, packed script. All festival designs are by Cory Shipp though this is her most spectacular: a blue-tiled immersion pool uncovered during the whole of the play’s 70 minutes where both actors repeatedly strip and immerse themselves, for prayer or immersive sanctuary. The simple surround and pool lights are lit by Chris McDonnell to haunting effect with sound design by Lex Kosanke.
The play expands borders because of a few narrative moments, Avi about his wife Leyla, in particular Avi’s inward but extreme responses to what’s happening. There’s a litanic way Azouz arranges his monologues, not unlike Elinor Cook, also featured in the Festival. One of the most telling is Avi’s reporting a casual conversation after noting ‘There are specks of coriander in her teeth./The talk inevitably leads to ‘children.’… I imagine us as pandas.’ This intensely imagistic deflection grounds itself in incongruous self-deprecation, but you don’t forget it. Pandas, reluctant maters (unlike this couple sexually Avi declares) push us to wonder how reluctant Avi is to make love ‘forcefully’ as he reports:
‘I remember what happened in the Mikvah./The boy. The kiss./My chest tightens. I’m sweating./Leyla, I’m just going out for some air./She says ‘okay, do you want coffee?’’
His response to her refusing to adopt elicits a brutal inward comment too: ‘I’ve married Doctor Mengele.’
What’s happening is Eitan’s peeling vulnerability. And Avi’s unpeeling awareness, like a layer of skin over the eyes. Each scene unpeels something withheld, some new skin.
Indeed just as Avi recalls this Eitan’s invoking him in dream: ‘I burn you. Actual fire comes out. Flames dance across your body. Your skin starts to fry and peel off …. you’re looking at me, like wanting me, like ON IT.’
Nakedness on stage is always about vulnerability and exposure, though it’s less easy to portray either sexual affirmation or non-sexual nudity. More or less all this is on show.
So sheerly accomplished in many ways, this first play betrays a plot-point late on that’s a tad clumsy, unbelievable and unnecessary. It doesn’t really matter, you feel if it hadn’t gone to press in 2015 the new NHB edition incorporating Buggy Baby might have silently revised it. It doesn’t need much apologizing for and it doesn’t effect the remarkable, hauntingly quiet denouement.
Green has paced this with a rapt dispatch that makes it resonate in its quiet moments to take the density of text in, and actors’ performances echoing over the waters. A brave and beautiful play.