In the second part of Fraught Outfit’s Book of Exodus featuring a large cast of children, ancient rituals cycle and build, continuing the project’s cryptic investigations into monotheistic religious identity in relation to the states (or roles) of childhood and parenthood. Visual pleasure abounds, but the performers seem confused, and I am too. Having already reviewed the first part, I don’t see much generosity on the part of the artists to invite me back into a critical space.

The abstract two-hander is replaced by a mass of children, their bodies more lost in the crowd and seeming more homogenous and helpless. Power structures become more visible and uncomfortable. Adena Jacobs and Aaron Orzech almost seem to be playing God with these young bodies. In contrast to The Bacchae, which at least seemed partly concerned with demonstrating the creative agency of the performers, Book of Exodus Part II is happy to let us believe that the children we are watching have no idea why they are there, and have no choice about the images they are creating together. I don’t believe this is entirely true, but if it’s not, why is the work so opaque about this? Why can’t your process of working with them – or better, some reflection of the human lives, the individual interests and concerns of your cast – be integrated into this work?

It is well known that children are vulnerable. Their parents and teachers dictate the vast majority of what they do. It is a present concern that many children are being kept in detention by our government. Some of them have been incarcerated for (with their parents) attempting their own Exodus to Australia. As demonstrated in paintings recently released by the ongoing Royal Commission into Youth Detention in the NT, art is a crucial expressive tool for young people in articulating their experience, especially when other avenues are unavailable. Yet the images and actions presented onstage in Book of Exodus Part II feel irrelevant or disingenuous to the lives of the young people performing it, and as adults we can’t pretend that they are neutral mediators in this act of adaptation.

I have seen adults, but never children, performing an unsettling, perverse caricature of childhood – this was a first for that. In the most confronting moment, a horizontal bar of bottle teats is lowered down, and the performers rush into a line to suck at the teats, like baby calves in a factory farm. The strange reality of that moment, as an adult in a room full of adults watching children in a performance created by adults perform a humiliating act of cartoonish childishness, far overshadowed any kind of symbolic significance for me. The ethical questions about performer consent, agency and self-representation raised by that moment were alarming in a way that the more apparent themes of the work simply were not. This is not to imply that it was unethical – as professionals I can only assume that they had thoughtful and strict protocols in place. But the deliberate opacity of the work in this sense seems designed to provoke controversy, and I simply wonder to what end? Controversy can be good for stimulating productive, left-of-field conversation about taboo issues, but what precisely is taboo here that needs a controversy to break it open to discussion? Or is the controversy simply a way of branding the art as cool, broadly opposed to commercialism and conservatism, while still existing purely for aesthetic pleasure and eschewing radical politics?

I think it would make sense that Adena Jacobs and Aaron Orzech have a meaningful relationship with Jewish history and cosmology, and that the deliberately confounding formal structure of the work is designed to communicate something ineffable about mystical experiences particular to Jewish people. Within this context, the fact that their work resists rational interpretation might not read so much as artistic negligence but as an unprecedented theatrical act of communion with ancient texts and with God. Their role to the young performers might be seen as more guiding than controlling, creating a space for people who are relatively new to the world to connect with a poetic (and historical) lineage. The rich visual compositions and durational play thereby offers a nontextual way of engaging with text, one that is embodied and thereby reflecting some of Jacobs’ post structural feminist values. There is no doubt that this is a powerful and culturally important ambition, especially given the cultural centricity of text and male bodies and voices in the religion.

Unfortunately, regardless of the cast’s understanding of their work, the lack of framing is an enormous barrier to accessing this way of relating to the work. It has literally taken me days of thinking about the show to really find a noncynical reading and I suspect that unless most viewers are far more literate in these themes than me, many people will take very little away from it besides a strange spectacle and some (productive) discomfort around the use of children. For a production of this scale I believe it is simply not fair to expect this level of prior knowledge or research from an average theatre audience, in order to actually engage with the intentions of the work. It’s obvious that many interesting discussions are happening behind the scenes – it would be nice to actually get invited to the conversation.