Three Mills Island, London E3
Opened 24 June, 1999

Rina Yerushalmi and her twelve-strong Itim Ensemble have created an astounding devotional work. Va Yomer (And He Said) and Va Yelech (And He Walked), half of Yerushalmi's four-part, seven-hour Bible Project, use texts entirely from the Old Testament (and predominantly from the Pentateuch) to illustrate and explore man's individual and collective relationship with God and with himself. For this is not a matter of narrow religious devotion, but a vigorously inquiring consciousness of the foundation of Israel both ancient and modern upon the Word of the Lord; the final scene of Va Yelech is of God's promise to make Abram the father of a mighty nation, and the preceding episodes (presented in a non-linear, collage order) deal with the journey of the Israelites into Canaan, Joshua's victories, the sacrifice of Jephthah's daughter and various of the laws given to the people.

I must admit that the prospect of three and a half hours of a dozen black-clad people on a bare stage, reciting Old Testament Hebrew (with a simultaneous King James Version translation provided via earphone), did not at first excite me. Little by little, though, it became apparent that the purity and rigour of the performance allow the most minimal changes to bear deep nuance; when the otherwise consistently bare white lights explode into colour for the Decalogue at the close of Va Yomer, the sudden richness of vision is as shocking as the gift of the Commandments themselves, and Joshua's destruction of the cities is pared down to its verbs alone ("smote it... utterly destroyed...") to convey the starkness of the episode. The migrating Israelites appear as a rag-tag of suitcase-clutching refugees, speaking obviously to another central episode in the istory of the Jewish people.

With the aforementioned exception, all visual effects are achieved by the use of white light. Israel Bright's music ranges from trance to an almost happy-clappy, wordess evangelical hymn of praise, and also uses Diamanda Galas's setting of Numbers 19, which in its original version is without doubt the most chilling piece of music I have ever heard, as the cast interweave funeral shrouds across the stage. Va Yomer. Va Yelech [sic] is a remarkable achievement: a concentrated meditation upon the birth of Israel and the ineluctable fact that in the beginning was the Word.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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