Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke
Talk about highs and lows: after the stunning success of the Lemi Ponifasio-created opening night work Chosen and
Beloved, the same director presented us with a piece that, despite containing moments of real beauty, was wildly
overambitious and poorly thought-out.
The programme notes for Jerusalem, which ranged widely but not very coherently over “dissolving binaries”, “the
ambiguities of necessary incompleteness” and the idea of a “heterotopia”, were the first sign that something was awry.
Jerusalem – as a city, and as an ideal – is obviously an attractive subject, dense with meaning. But it wasn’t clear
what the performance was trying to add to our understanding of the place and its many interpretations.
The show was a series of largely individualised and disparate performances, most of them oriented around a thin white
cage set in the stage’s centre. This potentially powerful object was seldom treated with reverence, being – apparently –
casually crossed and recrossed by the performers; if it was supposed to symbolise something about boundaries, sacred
spaces, enclosures and exclusions, it largely failed to do so.
None of this was helped by basic mistakes, such as projecting images onto the back wall of the theatre that could not be
seen by people in the gallery. But much more serious was the apparent absence of any coherent organisation of the
Places like Jerusalem are important because they are sites of reverence for several cultures; they are also hotly
disputed by those cultures; these two facts are not unrelated. Conflict and displacement are correspondingly at the
heart of our idea of Jerusalem. But there was precious little sense of clashing ideals or engagement across differences,
such was the isolation of most of the parts of the performance from each other.
Nor were the relationships between different elements and themes made clear. The piece opened with cries of ‘Wuhan be
strong’, a highly contemporary note; but although Wuhan is a quarantined city, and China has a significant Muslim
population that it is currently repressing, the direct connection with Jerusalem was not clear. Wuhan is not, as far as
I know, a contested ideal in the same way as the Middle Eastern city.
The nature of much of the content was also unclear. The programme notes told us that the te Reo content, making up the
majority of the show, was “braided” with the epic poem Concerto al-Quds by the Syrian writer Adonis. But how this
braiding happened, and consequently what we were listening to at any given point, was extremely opaque.
The pacing of the show was consistently very slow: pretty much everything happened at walking pace. This may be
deliberate, and characteristic of Ponifasio’s oeuvre, but it can surely work only if the audience is already highly
engaged, which on this evening it was not. Instead the result was a sense of everything being deeply drawn out, even
when it didn’t need to be, and the absence of any dynamic contrast, any build-up or release of energy.
That isn’t to say that there weren’t performances of real note. The male and female performers wielding respectively a
rifle and a spanner were spectacularly good; it was almost impossible to take one’s eyes off them. Also very good was
the long final section, in which a chalked-out square, suggestive of a quarantine zone, became the setting for a deeply
unsettling ritual: a near-naked man, seeming to take water from a white washbasin, covered himself in black liquid,
howled in anguish, and transformed his movements into something clearly simian.
Meanwhile, either side of him were two straight lines of flags, which could have stood for the way that national
identities cordon-off and exclude, or – conversely – the powerlessness of the international community face-to-face with
Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine. Finally it felt as if the performance was drawing on something both clear and
distilled. It was a powerful moment, but one sadly unable to redeem the incoherence of what had gone before.