Elbow Room's latest exploration of the emotional overlap between theatre and religion
Elbow Room's second piece in this year's Fringe – and perhaps we can call it the main meal, though Rule of Three, the first, is no mean repast – is its retelling of the Book of Genesis. It's the second in a proposed trilogy of works seeking poetic engagements with different aspects of the religious impulse. At last year's Fringe they offered us the death-of-death, or life-after-life, in After All This. This year, it's the human yen for origins, for a sense of where we come from, and what that might tell us about where we're going.
Though produced by a collective of self-described atheists, there is little here in the way of direct criticism, and even less in the way of profanity, at least by modern standards. There is a critique, but it's constructive, or even appreciative. The mood is in the tradition of Hermann Gunkel, the influential 20th-century Old Testament scholar:
"These poetic narratives are the most beautiful possession which a people brings down through the course of its history, and the legends of Israel, especially those of Genesis, are perhaps the most beautiful and most profound ever known on earth."
In emphasising the poetry of the Genesis narratives, however, writer Marcel Dorney doesn't exaggerate their lyrical qualities, or dwell among the beautiful archaisms of, for instance, the King James translation. There is a nod to the J writer's fondness for wordplay, with some humorous etymological back-and-forth ("What's that word? Atheist? Is it Greek?"), but by and large it's written in an uncluttered, contemporary idiom.
Rather, the poetry comes from an elegant formal rearrangement that shifts the emphasis from the supernatural to the human, particularly onto the tensions and obsessions caused by linage. Gone are the more famous episodes of divine intervention, such as the Deluge, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the tower of Babel and Cain's murder of Abel As we mean to go on instead turns its bright torch upon the less spectacular story of Abraham and his descendents through Isaac, Jacob and Joseph.
The body of the story is couched as a tale told by Joseph, memorably played by a very stern Angus Grant, to one of Pharaoh's scribes (Tim Wotherspoon), describing how his family came to be in Egypt. It's an inventive structure that finishes by tracing the movement of oral tradition into written, but it is perhaps less formally explosive than their previous efforts, and, with the combination of some pretty conservative biblical material and Dorney's typically restrained direction, it lags a little in the middle.
Religion is not entirely amputated. God is always near at hand, but not the God of Genesis, the one you might have met, in times gone by, on a late turn of the parterre. When Jacob, for instance, wrestles with the divinity face-to-face, the person he actually confronts is Naomi Rukavina with runny eye-makeup and a shiny, black one-piece bondage suit, complete with pvc hood and florescent orange wig. Contrasted with the quaintly anachronistic period costumes of the rest of the cast, this lends something vaguely post-human to the image of divinity in this production, as though God were only a more advanced version of the presently human. This feeling is re-enforced by the treatment of writing, a technology that is at first disparaged by Joseph, but which comes to be celebrated as a tool through which his tribe can achieve immortality.
We also see this theme of humanity with its hands outstretched toward the future-divine in the more abstract treatment of the Garden of Eden that bookends the performance. Choric voices from off stage deliver what, on one level, almost amounts to an apology for the patrilineal obsessions of the rest of the story – that we wouldn't have had stories without Eve's evishness at the beginning of it all. But the image of Tom Dent as Adam boosting Penny Harpham toward heaven, striving toward the apple of knowledge captures the spirit of this adaptation and its apparent faith in our inquisitive spirit.