Dybbuk - Bring out the dead

This article is from 2008.


Steve Cramer flies to Jerusalem to talk to Polish star Magdalena Cielecka about ghosts, obligation and tradition as explored in a new version of the Jewish classic, The Dybbuk

On the stage of Jerusalem’s Sherover Theatre, a beautiful young woman tears open her wedding gown and begins speaking in tongues. A rabbi is attempting a conversation with the spirit inside her and the voice – the trapped spirit of her former lover – has utterly transformed her character. This frail blond bride suddenly becomes possessed of an unexpected and frightening androgyny, rasping out the loss of a man now dead.
It’s the dramatic climax of a play with a long tradition of antecedents carried powerfully by Magdalena Cielecka, one of the stars of Poland’s inspirational TR Warszawa which is making a headline performance in the Israel Festival before gracing our own Edinburgh International Festival. The audience is awed.

Directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski, the play Dybbuk has two sources. The first, as you would expect, is Szymon Anski’s classic The Dybbuk, first performed in 1920, which tells the story of two young people separated by distance and class. Meeting without knowing they were promised to each other by their fathers before they were born, they fall deeply in love. So far, so convenient, but we wouldn’t have a story if it ended there. The girl’s father overrides his daughter’s desire for her boy, prevailing upon her to marry another, much wealthier, suitor. The rejected boy, a Jewish scholar, dies in a fire at his synagogue, but returns as a wandering ghost to haunt the girl’s wedding reception and, ultimately, to possess her. For the assembled families catastrophic results ensue.

Premiered in Warsaw, the piece became one of the most performed plays in Polish theatre, while the version in Yiddish, seen all over the world between and after the wars, was eventually rendered into Hebrew and has become a staple of Israeli Theatre.

The second source is a short journalistic story by Hanna Krall about a modern-day Jewish man whose body becomes inhabited by his half-brother, a victim of the Holocaust. This ‘dybbuk’ reminds the man of the Judaism he has rejected, while giving him a chilling insight into the holocaust.

This confrontation with tradition expands on Anski’s original and brings a modern flavour to the theme of obligation and repression. The man’s rejection of the spiritual in favour of the material in Krall’s story is the crisis that sets off the action in Anski’s play. Together, the two works throw up questions about materialism, repression and liberation that find few easy answers.

Like the man in the story, many of us see ourselves as products of a secular age. Tradition, however, is never far from the surface, manifesting itself in football colours, political views and the observation of holidays. The very language we speak predates us, while the names we are given at birth speak of long-held traditions. This doesn’t mean we take such tradition lying down. There is a constant conflict between accepting tradition and reacting to the repression it imposes. The embracing of consumerism – that most pervasive form of religious zeal – is only the latest of many quasi-spiritual quests the West has indulged in.

Cielecka, who plays the young bride in Dybbuk’s more traditional half and will stay on in Edinburgh to perform the lead role in Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, is keenly aware of this clash between tradition and emotional experience. ‘Just by the presence of the dybbuk, my character sets about rebelling against the forefathers,’ says the actor, a major Polish star and darling of the gossip magazines who came to international prominence in the Oscar-winning Katyn. ‘Because of the dybbuk being inside her she gains the power to rebel against hundreds of years of Jewish tradition, against all these set ways. That is perceived as a blasphemy by other people taking part in the feast. Finally, there’s love at the basis of it; the dybbuk is an illness because she can’t be with the person she loves.’

For Cielecka, her confrontation with the rabbi is more than just an element in an eerie ghost story. ‘In many religions, including the Jewish tradition, the man is above the woman,’ she says. ‘It’s no coincidence that she’s the hero of the play. That’s the way I understand it.’

But if tradition is guilty of oppressing individual desire, it also serves as a collective memory and its benefits need to be weighed against its drawbacks. Dramaturge Andrzej Chyra argues in favour of historical awareness. ‘The character in this part of the production, while born after the war, still can’t free himself from his nation’s collective memories of the Holocaust. ‘This can be a curse, but also a treasure,’ says Chyra.

This version of The Dybbuk makes for uncomfortable viewing for any culture with ghosts of the bigger, more historical kind, as Chyra affirms. ‘In Poland there’s a lot of denial and resistance about our own role in the Holocaust, so we found there was some difficulty with the subject matter,’ he says.

Yet, there are other ghosts that haunt cultures – perhaps Israel’s own relationship with her displaced population can be found within the subtext here, for example. Whatever ghosts you spot, the combination of brilliantly used animation, featuring symbols of the Kabbalah and other emblems of Jewish tradition, as well as an accumulation of allusions to that other kind of ghost, the personal and political history that haunts us, make this a powerful night of theatre.

Dybbuk, King’s Theatre, 473 2000, 9–11 Aug, 7.30pm, £10–£25.

The Dybbuk

  • 3 stars

Polish-made adaptation of the Jewish classic that employs symbols of Kabbalah and other Jewish traditions to explore that the latent pressures that haunt contemporary culture. 'Part of the Edinburgh Festival'

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