You can’t study English literature and not have read the Bible, stated Dr Wendy Jacobson a long time ago during an undergrad tutorial. It was a revelation. All those childhood years of unwillingly reading the Testaments at Sunday school and Friday night Bible study – Friday night, for god’s sake – could now be considered research.
But it is easy to forget just how utterly mad the Old Testament is. Lust, betrayal, vengeance, romance, massacre, heroism, blood, fire, floods.
It all came back as we took our seats for Samson at the Rhodes Theatre. A precis of Samson’s story (which can be found in the book of Judges) is projected on a massive screen as the actors perform an undefined ritual before the curtain metaphorically goes up.
To recap: Samson (son of the sun), the last of the Israelite judges, is born to a barren woman after an angel appears to her, and has to take the Nazarite vows which means he cannot cut his hair nor drink alcohol. Although Israel is under the rule of the Philistines, he heads off to see the cities as a young man, and against his parents wishes, decides to marry a Philistine woman. On his way home after the engagement, he is attacked by a lion and kills it. Returning for the wedding, the finds a beehive in the lion’s carcass. At the wedding he poses a riddle to his thirty Philistine groomsmen: ‘Out of the eater came something to eat, out of the strong came something sweet.’
The deal is, if the groomsmen solve the riddle, he presents them with gifts, if they fail, they present him with gifts.
Not happy with this, the groomsmen tell his bride they’ll burn her and her father’s household if she doesn’t provide the answer. She then extracts it from Samson, who goes off and kills 30 Philistines in a nearby town, takes their fine linen and garments and presents them as gifts promised to the groomsmen before returning in a rage to his father’s house.
Returning for his bride some time later, he discovers she’s now been wedded to one of the groomsmen. So Samson goes off and catches 300 foxes, ties pairs of them together by their tails, sets them alight and lets them loose in the fields, burning all the grain crops and olive trees. He also kills a bunch more Philistines and hides out in a cave. An army of 3,000 Philistines then comes for him and, using the jawbone of an ass as a weapon, he kills 1,000 of them.
Later, he falls in love with Delilah, who is also a Philistine. She is bribed with 1,100 silver coins to deliver to the Philistines the secret of Samson’s strength. She extracts this from him, gets him to sleep in her lap and orders one of her servants to cut off his hair.
Samson is then imprisoned and has his eyes gouged out. A decade later, Samson is brought to a temple where all the rulers and Philistine elites have gathered to sacrifice to one of their deities. By this time, Samson’s hair has grown back. He asks if he can be led to a pillar so he can lean against it and rest. Asking God to give him strength, he breaks the pillars, bringing down the temple and killing all 3,000 people inside, including himself.
Rich pickings. A superhero seduced by his desires, fails to fulfill his destiny, the saviour caught up in petty feuds with apocalyptic consequences. And what does Brett Baily, an internationally renowned theatremaker who has brought us iMumbo Jumbo, Ipi Zombi, Big Dada, Exhibition B, who has eviscerated us, do with it?
Well, he gives us a musical, a ritual, a sensory feast. Everything is thrown at it: dance, big screen animated projection, a live electronic soundtrack created by jazz hotshot Shane Cooper, bizarre costuming, an onslaught of symbolism.
It is overwhelming. And then it is not. It’s groovy. And then it’s not. It is rabid ecstacy. And then it is not. I was left in confusion, torn between anger at having being seduced by spectacle, and in awe of the sheer audacity of it all.
Unfathomably, Brett chose to have the plot, which we already been given, performed, which resulted in a continual mental calculation of just where we now were in the story, and how far we still had to go, which was a barrier to letting go and becoming absorbed. It is a mystery why the performance didn’t free itself from the shackles of plot and explore the realms of metaphor.
Instead, we are given a combobulation of media and medium which, although they complement and segue into each other, and blow us away at certain moments, nonetheless play out along very literal lines. There are great moments, and these are when metaphor does come into play. The shift to the contemporary global divide between rich and poor, exploiter and exploited, the one percent vs the rest, played out in rap and rage, is welcome, but not fully developed even though the pillars become the Twin Towers at the end. In a world of climate devastation caused by the greed of oligarchs who wield their unsurpassed power to enslave us within the consumerism that serves their profits, the references are all already laid out. There’s the capitalist, materialistic Philistines enslaving the Israelites – the chosen people. But it’s as if Brett is standing on the edge, not quite ready to commit, lacking the courage to fall into it, lacking the faith that we will catch it, and hanging onto the security of spectacle instead.
Over-the-top is not surprising in Third World Bunfight production. The vibrant voodoochedelic colour and borderline freak show is part of the attraction, but it’s not enough to hold it together for almost 90 minutes. As a result, the work dragged in numerous places.
The characters are symbols, thus we are unable to empathise with them, yet we are led to quiet moments which, because we cannot identify, become mere observation of unrecognisable ritual. Like being a gatecrasher at a Jewish wedding and watching the groom circle the bride seven times in a funeral step. You’re going to sip on your drink and wait for the pace to pick up. Which is fine, if you have a drink. These plateaus interspersed with what were admittedly exhilerating peaks, are a result of the unresolved stylistic tension between ritual and musical.
A bit like being at a rock concert where the singer talks too much. However, I would love to get my hands on the soundtrack.
Written, designed and directed by Brett Bailey
Composer and musical director: Shane Cooper
Choreographer: Elvis Sibeko
Art work: Bretty Bailey and Tanya P Johnson
Lighting designer: Wolf Britz
Video animation: Kirsti Cumming
Sound engineer and design: Marcel Bezuidenhout
Technical production manager: Kobus Rossouw
Stage manager: Namhla Kalipa
Producer and general manager: Barbara Mathers
Samson’s mask: Mark Rautenbach