THEATRE / Spirit of the moment: Paul Taylor on the RSC's production of Anski's The Dybbuk

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The Independent Culture
A COMPANY's electricity bill has little to fear from Katie Mitchell. Her productions (in particular, those powerful forays she has made into Elizabethan domestic tragedy) tend to create worlds of charged, candle-lit intimacy and danger - the chiaroscuro having (at times) a burnished, Rembrandtesque quality, the stage covered in real earth. Her wonderfully absorbing account of The Dybbuk, just opened at the Pit, illustrates again her talent for imparting the sense of a close community, drawing you this time into a Hasidic Jewish enclave in turn-of-the- century Eastern Europe.

The artistic team made a research trip to the Ukraine (where the author, Solomon Anski, originally gathered much of his material), but the production never gives the impression of simply unpacking in public its ethnic souvenirs. The play envisages a spooked world of swaying Talmudic scholars, anxiously arranged marriages, superstitious folk tales, and rabbinical trials in which the dead can be summoned up as witnesses, but Mitchell's version has a fully inhabited feel. The tin bucket at the door where visitors cleanse their hands and the chair festooned with foliage for a bride to sit on do not have the folk-museum look of the objects in, say, Barbra Streisand's Yentl. For Mitchell really imagines how people live. In her A Woman Killed With Kindness, you noticed how she had given a well-born female, reduced to working the land, the touching indignity of chapped hands. Here, she makes sure that a bridegroom and his father arrive for the ceremony with their cars and coats splattered with impolite mud from the long, cross-country journey.

The play tells the story of Leye, a girl who becomes possessed by the dybbuk (or discontented spirit) of Khonen, the young scholar who died when she was betrothed (for material reasons) to another. Joanne Pearce brings a haunting quality of loneliness to the role. The conflict between her deep spiritual need for reunion with Khonen and the impending arranged marriage to a man she has never seen is brought out thrillingly when the sudden clashing sounds of a merry, distant wedding band startle Leye from preoccupied quietness into the panic-stricken disarray of a cornered animal.

Pearce's performance pre-empts any titters in the episodes of possession too. When Khonen's voice, in a brain-damaged slur, prises itself through, she trails round a crippled-looking foot or jerks her throat forward as if she has been inhabited by a spirit that can only take up residence in one bit of her at a time.

In part a cautionary tale against the father's materialism, the story traces how, after exorcism from Leye's body, Khonen's spirit returns to be reunited with her soul. But the legend we hear of a 16th-century bride and groom who are slaughtered by Cossacks on their way to the ceremony links the central couple's fate to the wider Jewish experience of persecution, of innumerable unfinished lives. So the play seems to offer a challenge to this Hasidic community (since it is by no conventional route that Leye and Charles Daish's excellent, nervily intense Khonen find satisfaction) and to pay warm tribute to its flawed strengths.

A programme note on Jewish theology would have been useful along with a glossary of some of the more arcane Yiddish expressions. It's a large cast and the direction doesn't go out of its way to help in the identification of characters. But the acting is very fine (especially from Rob Edwards's enigmatic Messenger and John Shrapnel's troubled exorcist) and the production is manifestly possessed of the right spirit.

The Dybbuk continues at the Pit, Barbican Centre (Box-office: 071-638 8891).

(Photograph omitted)