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The Dybbuk

S. Ansky, adapted by Eve Leigh
Leigh Gauntlett Productions
King's Head Theatre
(2008)

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Imagine a dead person's spirit lodging in your body, speaking through you and fully controlling your thoughts. Sounds like Bruce Joel Rubin's Ghost? Well, Ansky's story is far better. Originally written in Yiddish and then translated into Russian, the story is rooted in the 19th century eastern European Jewish village where religion, mysticism and superstition joined forces.

This is a tale of an ill-fated love between Chonen (Edward Hogg), a penniless but devout student of Jewish mysticism, and Leah (Hanne Steen), the young woman he loves. Unbeknown to the young couple, their fathers arranged their marriage even before they were born. Each man's wife was pregnant. They pledged that if they will have children of the opposite sex, these children will be betrothed. Further, if any ill were to befall one of them, the other would treat the fatherless child as his own.

Chonen's father drowned. Chonen and Leah were drawn to each other. Leah's father failed to enquire who Chonen's father was. Leah's father, now a wealthy businessman, forgot his pledge to his late friend and plans to marry her to someone else. When the young Chonen learns of Leah's imminent marriage he collapses and dies. His soul, however, lives on as a dybbuk, entering Leah's body so as to gain possession of her love for all eternity. After various nefarious deeds are revealed, the rabbi, aided by other spiritual leaders, finally succeeds in exorcising the dybbuk, using incantations and rituals, culminating in blasts of the shofar (ram's horn). Leah, meanwhile, faces the choice between marriage to a man for whom she feels nothing or an unworldly union with her dead lover's spirit.

The word dybbuk stems from the root davak which means 'cling to'. It came to represent a spirit that takes possession of an individual and uses his body, like a parasite. The play draws on many different folkloric elements. A production of this play is a challenge and should have provided, in the first part, some explanation of the background to those not familiar with the tale. In this production the students in the 'synagogue' were unable to communicate any of the relevant ideas. Yet the second part lifted the play and generated the requisite dramatic effect with some moving scenes.

This is Eve Leigh's début production. It is a challenging play to produce as it consists of elements unfamiliar even to Jews not versed in Hebrew or with some understanding of basic concepts drawn from the Kaballah (mystical Judaism). It therefore requires a more demanding opening which should set out clearly many of the traditional Jewish concepts. The communication between the 'students' at the outset does not convey anything. They are supposedly sitting in a synagogue and referring to different Rabbis. It is not clear why Fradde (Lisa Came) should have her head covered, while the men, supposedly religious students, do not have any form of cover over their heads in the Jewish place of worship. Dressing them in pseudo-Cossack garb throws this already uneasy play into confusion. The future success of this production largely depends on reshaping of the opening scene.

Until 24 February.

Reviewer: Rivka Jacobson