Go Down, Moses

Italian theatre-maker Romeo Castellucci’s latest work is brilliant and baffling in equal measure.

Photo credit: Guido Mencari, Adelaide Festival of Arts

Romeo Castellucci has been at the forefront of the theatrical avant-garde since the 1980s; he’s the sort of visionary auteur who in Australia inspires other playwrights and directors to travel interstate specifically to see his work, and whose name is uttered with devotion and awe.  

This year’s Adelaide Festival of Arts hosts the Australian premiere of Castellucci’s latest production: a co-commission by the festival inspired by the myth of the Jewish prophet and lawgiver, Moses.

It’s a fascinating but frustrating piece of theatre, rich and baffling, full of obtuse yet startling imagery and endlessly open to interpretation.

Like Moses hiding his face from God in Exodus because he is afraid to look upon the divine, Castellucci shies away from a literal exploration of the prophet’s story. Instead of easy and familiar images – a basket caught among bulrushes, a burning bush, stone tablets engraved with the Commandments – he gives us tangential images from which we must draw out our own story and meaning.

The slavery of the Israelites under Pharaoh is expressed through monotony and murder; the voice of God is a roaring machine upon which clumps of hair are torn and tangled (recalling the exhortations of Corinthians ‘that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonour to him’). The next moment a woman sobs in agony in a public toilet as she mops ineffectually at the blood flowing down her thighs. Thereafter, in an especially striking image, a black rubbish bag in a dumpster rustles as an abandoned baby cries, unseen.

Later, after questioning by police, the woman lies down in an MRI scanner as a doctor gently adjusts her bloody dress. What follows evokes humanity’s earliest religious beliefs, as well as more recent investigations into the neuroscience of spirituality.

Grief and loss, ritual and sacrifice: Go Down, Moses is steeped in profound emotions, though little such emotion passes through the scrim which separates actors and audience – a scrim which also serves as the barrier between physical world and afterlife, separating humanity from the presence of God.

There is a fierce intelligence at play here, but little resembling drama as it is commonly represented. Consequently some audiences may struggle with the work, which balances dispassionately on the razor edge separating brilliance from self-indulgence.

Whether Moses ever really existed as an historical figure we cannot say with certainly, though the present scholarly consensus leans towards him being mythical. What we do know is that the Book of Exodus, which describes Moses’ life and deeds, also introduces the Bible’s first reference to or depiction of an explicitly sacred space (in Hebrew, ‘kadosh’); a place made sacred by the manifestation of God in the form of a burning bush.

The God of the Old Testament appears several times in such a form, most dramatically in Deuteronomy 4: 11-12: ‘The mountain was ablaze with flames to the very skies, dark with densest clouds. The Lord spoke to you out of the fire; you heard the sounds of words but perceived no shape; nothing but a voice.’

For Castellucci, the theatre is a sacred space, and in it, his ideas burn like fire. We may not always perceive his intent, but his voice is unmistakable.  

Rating: 4 stars out of 5 stars

Go Down, Moses
By Romeo Castellucci
Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio
Direction, Set, Costumes and Lights: Romeo Castellucci
Music: Scott Gibbons
Text by Claudia Castellucci and Romeo Castellucci
With Rascia Darwish, Gloria Dorliguzzo, Luca Nava, Stefano Questorio, Sergio Scarlatella
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre
25-28 February

Adelaide Festival of Arts
26 February – 14 March 2016

Richard Watts travelled to Adelaide as a guest of the Adelaide Festival of Arts.

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts