SYN Reviews: ‘Dybbuks’ at Theatre Works


Chamber Made Presents the World Premiere of Dybbuks

Words by Dana Hamilton

Passes provided by publicists.


An inward reflection of cultural ritual through an assault on the audiences’ senses.


“In Yiddish mythology dybbuks are the unsolved souls who seek to find form through living bodies” (Dybbuks theatre program).


There is an avant-garde theatre theorist who goes by the made of Antonin Artaud whose performance style was called ‘Theatre of Cruelty’. Artaud would shock and assault the senses of his audience through sound, lighting, movement and gesture. His goal was to confront his audience in order for them to bypass thought and engage directly with their emotions.  This is most effective when dealing with social and political subject matter and this is exactly what Dybbuks is.


Conceived and directed by Samara Hersch and presented by Chamber Made, Dybbuks opened on the 14th of this month at Theatre Works in St Kilda. This piece is an exploration of the cultural and religious practices within the Jewish community, honing in on themes of possession, the female body and death. By employing an all female cast of three central actors, four musicians and a local Yiddish choir of intergenerational women, the examination of the female body and soul is ever-present in the space.


This is not your conventional theatre production. It is a soundscape and music wonderland where images are created through body and movement and the audience is thrust into an environment whereby they are forced to come to conclusions of their own.


One of the strongest, most striking elements of the production is the set, designed by Paul Jackson. In the centre of the space stands a raised platform curtained on all four sides by clear, plastic strips reaching from ceiling to floor. Inside these plastic walls is a raised platform, which later becomes a cleansing vessel, and perched atop this is two deathly-still figures, shrouded in tulle. This is a powerful first image to enter the space and observe. The audience is positioned around this tableau in a theatre-in-the-round layout. This production is enhanced dramatically by this set-up as being directly in front of the action and surrounded by loud, eerie, unearthly orchestral sounds, the audience is forced into that Artaudian world of confrontation.


It is refreshing to see a performance that relies so heavily on sound, lighting and movement to tell the story rather than text, and with actors who left me gobsmacked at their practice. Performer and vocalist, Jenny Barnes, was astounding in her enactment. Her vocal sounds of guttural and otherworldly retching and animalistic growling are inspired through the imitation of mammals, domestic pets and birds. Her processed mannerisms evoked shock, fear and confrontation, particularly at the boomingly loud climax of the production. Sound, in the form of melodic Yiddish folksongs sung by the choir, provided an eerie contrast to the exorcism-like noise of Barnes. A special mention also needs to be given to Max Lyandvert for his sound design and composition.


Dancer and performer, Lauren Langlois’ character was well cast.  Her technical dance background aided her to excel in her manipulation and articulation of her body. Her strength through physicality was captivating to watch and her acting was raw and vulnerable.  


Hersch’s creation is a well-executed artistic collaboration that uses all elements of theatre to her advantage in order to explore the notion of death and the ‘other’ through the female experience.


If I’m honest, I don’t really understand the entirety of what I experienced in that space. What I can tell you is that there were moments when I felt disgusted, shocked, triggered, sad and on edge and yet I walked away empowered having experienced an emotional alteration that was intriguing and powerful. Is this production conveying a message or is it an exploration of a cultural reality? That’s for you to decide. My interpretation will be different to yours, but there in lies the magic of theatre. And so, if you are seeking an artistic experience that makes you FEEL, Chamber Made’s Dybbuks is your answer.


Dybbuks is running until the 26th of August at Theatre Works in St Kilda.

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