So Yom Kippur was this Friday and Saturday, when Jewish people take a full day (sunset to sunset) to come together, sing liturgy, wear uncomfortable shoes (no leather!) and think about what we’ve done poorly in the last year that we could do better next year. Oh, and not eat or drink for 25 hours. I always moan about it beforehand, especially the 25-hour fast (this year: 7:05pm on Friday to 8:05pm on Saturday) and the Whole Lot Of Shul (from Friday to Saturday night it’s basically synagogue, sleep, synagogue, synagogue, nap, synagogue.). But actually I really like Yom Kippur – it’s a day out of time devoted to thinking about how to be a better person, which is a pretty great idea no matter who came up with it, and one I always find useful. The melodies are lovely, especially Avinu Malkeinu, which is probably my favourite liturgical tune, and in the afternoon study sessions/nap time I get to catch up with a lot of people I know at synagogue – it’s a bit like a 25-hour Jewish day camp for everybody. I even secretly like the fasting. I dread it every year but I love Yom Kippur when it’s happening, and as soon as it’s over I really miss it.
When I first moved to London and started settling into the Jewish community here, the post-Yom Kippur comedown was especially hard because I lived on my own. After going through a pretty intense 25 hours together, everybody else went off to big family celebrations and I’d go home to takeaway curry in my tiny flat. Although my synagogue is excellent at having things for single people, the fact is that a lot of Jewish celebrations end up in the home, and it’s hard to really feel a part of those when you’re a student living in a 100-square-foot £390pcm flat off Kilburn High Road.
Although I’m a little more established in a home and have a spouse to celebrate holidays with, it’s still hard to find the right way to celebrate after Yom Kippur without the local family or children that (it feels like) most London Jews have. Last year I broke the fast with a friend who lived down the road from my synagogue, although she’s since moved out of London. This year I was excited when I found what sounded like the perfect thing to do after Yom Kippur: go to Shakespeare’s Globe’s rock musical adaptation of The Bacchae, The Lightning Child. It somehow felt very appropriate to move from Judaism’s biggest holiday of fasting, reflection and abstention to Euripides’ play about over-the-top religious ecstasy and mob hysteria. (I am using the word “hysteria” advisedly here, what with the Maenads and all.)
I saw there was a deal where you get a free beer with a £5 standing ticket – considering that beer is £3.90 it’s a pretty good deal even if it is Peroni. It’s still on, if you want to use it – put in “PCDYARDANDBEER” when booking. If you are like me and want to bring in wine (thematically appropriate!) and don’t fancy mixing your drinks, the voucher is also good for a soda.
Although the play started at 7:30pm, the Yom Kippur fast didn’t end until 8:05. We had popped into Tesco to pick up some wine (the traditional fast breaker) and something small to eat just when the fast ended, as well as sandwiches for the interval. One tradition after Yom Kippur is to eat pastries at first (this is a good idea as bready, light foods are good for your stomach to digest when it hasn’t had anything in 25 hours) and I went for a maybe-not-“light”-but-still-good Krispy Kreme, which I paired after careful consideration (sample quote: “Is this floor tilted or am I just dizzy?” “Please just pick something before you fall over”) with a New Zealand pinot noir.
So we’re standing there in the yard at the Globe with our plastic supermarket bag full of food I can’t eat yet and a half-pint plastic cup of wine I can’t drink yet, and there’s a big metal ball covered in a white dropcloth above the stage and everything else is covered in white canvas, and Ewan is drinking his free beer and we’re really hoping it doesn’t start raining like it did yesterday, and Neil Armstrong walks out and starts arguing with his wife about whether or not going to the moon is a good idea. Five minutes later the white canvas drops to reveal an absurdly bright backdrop with silver curtains.
We were dropped right in the middle of a haphazard modern-ish setting, with two plots in contemporary London – a pair of heroin addicts on the streets of Hoxton and two young luvvies in a flatshare in Islington – and the core Bacchae adaptation in an intentionally anachronistic “Thebes”. (I love productions of the classics that say “fuck it” to time and setting and I loved it here too). Plus cameos from Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, Castor Semenya, and Billie Holiday and Lester Young. It sounds like a lot going on and it was: I have to admit I didn’t quite get the connection between the two modern plots and the Bacchae adaptation, nor with Holiday and Young (who got the play’s penultimate scene, and acted the crap out of it – the acting was outstanding across the board). The play’s ‘chorus’ sometimes flagged up weighty dramatic moments that I felt it hadn’t quite earned, and the writing could slip into Stand Still And Let Me Describe My Feelings To You. Which was a shame because when it was showing instead of telling, the script was very good – Teiresias, Pentheus and Agave particularly had some knockout material.
After all The Lightning Child‘s press about rock and excess, I wish there had been more of the Bacchae plot. The modern scenes were well acted but slowed the tempo way down, and although the Maenad mob near the end was well done it didn’t have the tragic momentum I’d been anticipating. I think this is because I was looking for more emphasis on religious frenzy – one of the most important things about The Bacchae, and one that The Lightning Child conveyed very well when it did show it, is that the conflict between Dionysus and Pentheus is a religious one. It’s not just “grumpy pastor from Footloose bans fun; fun fights back” or “family revenge drama”: Dionysus is angry at the way his mother’s family treated her, but also because Pentheus is not giving him the worship he is due. He is the god of wine and revelry but the emphasis is on god.
He certainly isn’t a proto-feminist battling Pentheus’ backwards oppression of women and camp men, which is implied in the confrontation between the two: Pentheus is booed like a panto villain for his over-the-top misogyny in his first scene (which was a lot of fun), and immediately afterwards Dionysus enters to a chorus of cooing nearly naked women prostrating themselves and singing “Bow down”, but the irony wasn’t played up and I’m not sure the production realises it’s there. To close the first act Dionysus leads the Maenads (including a newly converted soldier of Pentheus’, now wearing very little) in a great song with the chorus “Welcome to the world of the freaks”, which sort of casts Dionysus as a champion of social outsiders with fluid gender and/or sexuality. But ultimately my impression was of “gender fluidity for me, but not for thee”: the male characters were encouraged to cross-dress, and did enthusiastically, but the (thin, tall) women were in uniform gold lycra bikinis and floaty purple scraps. It’s like, “Yes, you look like total social outcasts, you attractive, athletic women dancing around gracefully in your underpants! Weirdos!”
That said, I did enjoy the evening immensely and although I still think the gender stuff was a bit Off, my impression of the script being a little fragmented could well be the result of low blood sugar followed by a massive Krispy Kreme spike and two-thirds of a bottle of wine. And there were many simply gorgeous images that are still very immediate in my mind: Billie Holiday smoking and talking to herself in her dressing room mirror; Agave’s sharp aria of a soliloquy to her son’s eyeless head; the shocking denouement of the Islington plot; the dropcloth over the metal globe being whipped off to reveal the ‘man in the moon’ as a confident drag artist. In particular, Neil Armstrong bobbing off the Globe stage and into the groundling pit is a theatrical memory I will keep with me for a long time.
In a quirk of timing the Yom Kippur fast ended just as Dionysus made his first entrance from the ‘gods’ space above the stage, and I said the blessing over wine and took my first sip as the god of wine started whipping up the crowd. That was exactly the kind of fast/frenzy, abstention/consumption religious overlap I’d been hoping for, and it was sublime.
I can’t decide yet whether The Lightning Child is a good play (not to mention that it hasn’t properly opened yet – the night we saw it was the first preview, its first ever performance before an audience, and some parts may have changed!) but it was a searingly memorable night at the theatre, so maybe that’s enough of an answer.
The Lightning Child plays at Shakespeare’s Globe through to 12 October; tickets are £5-39 and you can get a free beer with a standing ticket if you enter PCDYARDANDBEER while booking online. Yom Kippur 5775 starts on Friday, October 3 2014 and ends on Saturday, October 4 2014.