A woman screams. It’s an unbearably long wail. First, I’m sure it’s from pain, the utter agony of child birth and then something changes in her face, almost imperceptibly. Now it’s no longer physical pain but a woman in mourning. Sarai is barren. She runs her hands through the blood that must have splattered to the ground during this inconceivable cruelty. She weeps but already she talks about how she has become used to the undead phantoms she keeps bringing into this world. Then, by way of divine revelation, Sarai is intent on turning her physical weakness into a strength and so she helps in leading her people into the promised land. When this land turns out to be just as barren, Sarai is tested further: hardship along the journey, illnesses and jealously. While the opening to Sarai is truly chilling the rest of the play struggles to make the biblical source material of Abraham and Sarah relevant to an audience today.
The dance-infused one-woman show which switches between moments of storytelling and choreographed movement scenes sees performer Karlina Grace-Paṣeda accompanied by four musicians from different cultural backgrounds. Musically, the fusion between Arabic flute and percussion, trumpet, cello and unconventional drum arrangements is stunning and it truly creates the strong and steady pulse for this otherwise uneven show. While I’m generally all up for genre mix experiments, this feels like a fairly muddy mélange of different modes of expression which lets down each of its parts. Shane Shambu’s choreography for example appears to be confined either solely to the psychological exploration of the main character or illustrating mime action.
And then there is the storytelling. There is a stretch earlier on in the play when it’s actually not quite clear that this is really the simple retelling of biblical material. Weighty names such as Abraham and Ishmael have not been invoked yet and Sarai talks about the deadly consequences of being poor and the violent gangs that ambush her travelling people. When Byron Wallen’s soulful jazz trumpet then gently tugs the listener’s mind into the modern world, in that moment Sarai could have been one of the Syrian refugees and the revelation she heard could be the promise she has dreamt up herself, a promise of a better future in a different country. Sadly, this potential remains untapped as does the chance of a radical female rewriting of the antiquated ideologies implied in the bible story of Abraham and Sarah: that women’s only task is to bear children to men, that women need to please men. Even nationalistic sentiments get celebrated in a scene of swelling music and enthusiastic arm waving, without the slightest iota of irony. Paul Anthony Morris anchors the work around a distressingly tribalistic core and the more specific references to the original material are introduced, the more the piece trundles into irrelevance.