Note: the performance I saw was the second preview.
The first thing you notice is the water. The Mikvah Project has plonked a pool – “a massive fucking pool”, to quote Megan Vaughan – right in the middle of The Yard’s stage. It’s so dominating that there’s room for little else in Cécile Trémolieres’ design; just a row of hooks on the back wall and the tatty, functional, scrubbed-clean aesthetic of a public leisure centre.
The pool, tendrils of steam slowly rising from its surface, is the Mikvah of the title. If – like me before reading about the show – you’re wondering what a Mikvah is exactly, it’s a Jewish bath used for ritual immersion. It has associations of cleansing, transformation, rebirth. When Adam was banished from the Garden of Eden, he flung himself in the river that flowed from the perfect world he’d just left, desperately trying to wash away the stains of sin. The first Mikvah was born.
This space, saturated with ritual, religion and tradition, forms the constant backdrop of Josh Azouz’s tender two-hander. It becomes the focal point for the lives of its two male characters, 35-year-old Avi and 17-year-old Eitan, exerting an almost palpable gravitational pull. Even when the narrative positions them elsewhere, the Mikvah is still there.
The tradition, apparently, is to immerse yourself in the Mikvah three times, a nod to the three times it’s mentioned in the Torah. Avi, a man writhing inside his own skin, immerses nine times. He just can’t get clean enough. As for Eitan, well, he’s not sure he wants to wipe away his apparent sins.
Azouz’s play – and similarly Jay Miller’s production – takes its time. It unravels (and unravel feels like just the right word) at an unapologetically gradual pace. We learn a little about the characters: that Avi is married and trying desperately for a baby, that Eitan is still at school and has been kicked out of the synagogue choir. But more importantly we learn about their relationship, a vague acquaintance that through the shared ritual of the Mikvah delicately, almost imperceptibly shifts into something far deeper, far more intoxicating.
It’s immersion by stealth. Watching, at first it feels as though I’m treading water – ticking off items in a mental exposition checklist, trying to decide whether the delivering of lines into microphones is interesting or cliched. But slowly, inch by inch, and without me quite realising until it’s too late, I get dragged under. Soon I’m gulping for air and stretching my water metaphors too far in an attempt to sidestep what I can’t quite articulate.
A lot of it has to do with the understatement and delicacy of the performances. As the older Avi, Jonah Russell flickers with a near-constant edge of discomfort. He is the very definition of unsettled, both by Eitan and by his own reaction to this teenage boy. Oliver Coopersmith’s Eitan, meanwhile, struggles to contain everything he feels, his jittery impulsiveness threatening to overpower Avi’s ruffled sense of propriety. Their conversations carry all of this at the same time as being awkward, halting, weighted down with the baggage of the real world outside the Mikvah. Intimacy can only emerge at intervals. And by the time the orbit of these two men crashes together, we instinctively understand that the sweetness of their collision will be short-lived, painfully intensifying the joy of their coming together.
The whole production is similarly light of touch. On second preview, there are still some moments that unsurprisingly snag – the opening hasn’t quite got the clarity it needs yet, and generally the scenes set outside the Mikvah are less confidently realised than those within its walls – but the overall feeling is one of tender fragility. Unobtrusive projections flicker and ripple insubstantially on the back wall; small, murmured snatches of “Hideaway” and “Wicked Game” and looped, ritualistic humming provide the spare but evocative soundtrack. Then there’s the pool itself: ever-present, with all its heavy suggestions of the faith that binds the two characters, but at the same time playful and kind of joyous.
There’s also an interesting but not quite fully explored sense in which Avi and Eitan are telling their own story, alternately distancing from and drenching themselves in it. Outside the Mikvah, Azouz’s script plays around with the first and third person; at times, both men want to dissociate themselves from their actions and emotions, while at others teller and subject merge into one. These shifts could be exploited more, elaborating on the conflicted and altering attitudes both men feel towards their relationship – a relationship that they might occasionally want to scrub away along with everything else.
But they can’t. The Mikvah yields transformation, for sure, but it can’t cleanse Avi and Eitan of their desire or their pain. Like that very first Mikvah that Adam immersed in outside the boundaries of Eden, it fails to transport them back. Instead they’re left, stranded in this new world and struggling with what that means. Struggling, flailing, trying not to go under.