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Akedah by Michael John O’Neill at Hampstead Theatre

The Akedah is, in the Jewish tradition, the name of the story read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, referred to as ‘The Binding of Isaac’, which at face value is quite a horrific account, and not just because Abraham instructs his servants, “Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder”. Abraham is instructed by God to offer Isaac as a burnt sacrifice, only for a last minute reprieve to occur. I couldn’t quite work out precisely what that story had to do with the narrative in the play, except to say this production is generally overladen with religious content.

Amy Molloy as Gill in Akedah. Cedit Helen Murray.
Amy Molloy as Gill in Akedah. Cedit Helen Murray.

The sort of church that Kelly (Ruby Campbell) belongs to comes across as something from a previous generation – her sister, Gill (Amy Molloy) even refers to Waco and Jonestown, a 1993 massacre and 1978 mass suicide respectively, both of which occurred thanks to the actions of religious cults. I found it bizarre that Kelly is almost constantly interrupted by calls and text messages from superiors in her church whilst she is trying to talk to her sister (itself a form of coercive control), and yet hasn’t used the technology at her disposal to perform rudimentary searches on the sort of activities the church carries out. I’ve spoken to people who used to be in cults decades ago, and one of the top reasons for blindly following a charismatic leader back then is that they didn’t know any better – the leader’s claims and assertions couldn’t be Googled, because the internet wasn’t widely available at the time.

Gill has a point when she has suspicions about the church’s ‘senior pastor’, Richard, providing accommodation for plenty of young and single women as he does, as though there is no other demographic in the area that would benefit from shelter. Richard, running an independent church, does not answer to a bishop or a church board. As for the play itself, it feels considerably longer than it is, partly because of the constant checking up on Kelly by the church (the conversation between the sisters takes place on church property, for reasons explained in the narrative).

The religious (or maybe pseudo-religious) backdrop seems to get in the way of this sisterly reunion making substantial progress in terms of plot – there’s talk of ‘speaking in tongues’ and ‘faith healing’, though neither, perhaps mercifully, are demonstrated on stage. For Gill to have left home and then return to Northern Ireland years later, and for that visit to reveal all sorts of personal secrets and misunderstandings that need resolving, sounds like many an Irish play. But this isn’t another story about the Irish experience of emigrating for economic reasons, even if I can’t help feeling that would be more riveting than some sort of Pentecostalist intervention on Gill that is doomed from the start on account of Kelly’s lack of experience in such matters.

There’s a third character introduced late on in proceedings, Sarah (Mairead McKinley), whose true identity is, alas, too much of a spoiler, suffice to say the heartfelt exchange between her and Gill, devoid of the excesses of Kelly’s relentless cultish euphoria, felt very real and very human. It was, however, too little too late in a play that spends too much energy portraying the church as dangerous and deluded. An exhausting watch, and not in a good way: I prayed myself, for it to be over, and part of me wanted to shout ‘Hallelujah!’ when it did. I suppose the cast do well with what they’re given, but what they’re given needs the kind of divine intervention Kelly would relish the opportunity to (try to) summon.

2 gold stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Gill has returned home to the north coast of Northern Ireland determined to speak to her younger sister Kelly for the first time in three years. There she is shocked to discover that Kelly has become a devout member of a rapidly expanding Christian community called Harvest. As Gill struggles to reconcile this Kelly with the Kelly she has been keeping safe in her mind, a noise is gathering at their periphery that refuses to go unheard any longer.

Akedah is Michael John O’Neill’s first full-length play, and won the Bruntwood Prize Original New Voice Award in 2019.

Akedah stars Ruby Campell (The Snow Queen, Lyric Theatre, Belfast; Translations, Abbey Theatre, Dublin), Mairead McKinley (The String Quartet’s Guide to Sex and Anxiety, Birmingham Rep/world tour; Filthy Business, Hampstead Theatre) and Amy Molloy (This is Paradise, Traverse Theatre; Translations, National Theatre).

ARTISTIC TEAM
WRITER – MICHAEL JOHN O’NEILL
DIRECTOR – LUCY MORRISON
DESIGNER – NAOMI DAWSON
LIGHTING – KEVIN MURPHY
SOUND – BETH DUKE

STAGE MANAGER
GRACE HANS
HAMPSTEAD DOWNSTAIRS / CELIA ATKIN PRESENT
AKEDAH
BY MICHAEL JOHN O’NEILL
DIRECTED BY LUCY MORRISON
10 FEB – 18 MAR 2023
https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/

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