September 20, 2019

Judith: The woman warrior who brought down a general

Arabian rugs and pillows are spread out in a tent as Holofernes, the general of the Assyrians, plots his victory over the Israelites. Wearing a tunic, he speaks lines of great beauty: “I am overcome with wonder, trembling with a terrible infatuation.”

He is speaking of war, yet he might be anticipating the woman who will take him to bed later in the evening.

That woman, the eponymous star of “Judith: A Parting From the Body,” resuming its run at the Theater of NOTE on Nov. 30, is the Jewish heroine known to readers of the Apocrypha. Though the Apocrypha was written at the time that the Greek tragedians were plying their trade, British playwright Howard Barker says from England that his play is not influenced by the Greeks.

“Where traditional tragedy operates in a strong moral climate, my tragedy breaks that down,” says Barker, who has been writing plays, primarily tragedies, since the late 1960s.

He adds, “I am not a political playwright. A political play is about informing. I don’t do that.”

He is surely right that his play makes no moral judgments about Judith, the Jewish warrior, nor about Holofernes, the Assyrian general who broods upon death. Yet it does have a servant, who, with her constant chattering and interference, may remind one of Pandarus stoking the fire while Troilus and Cressida try to be intimate.

When asked if he sees any trace of Medea in his Judith, Barker says, “In a word, ‘No.'”

Yet the lead, played by Julia Prud’homme, has a violent passion about her on the stage, all the more so after she has beheaded Holofernes, played by Mark McClain Wilson.

Prud’homme, who trained in London for one semester with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, spearheaded this production. She not only stars in it, she co-produced it. Eleven years ago, she played the servant in a festival up in Seattle, where she was an actress for nearly a decade.

“Throughout history, women have performed heroic deeds,” she says, pointing out that those deeds often go unnoticed.

That is one of the reasons she so desperately wanted to bring this production to Los Angeles and to play Judith.

“Part of what makes this story so epic is if Holofernes succeeds, that’s it for the Israelite race,” she says. “There’s so much weight attached to the fact that your people are on the verge of being exterminated.”

While Prud’homme was drawn to the play because of the heroism of its lead, Barker was inspired by a painting of Judith by Artemisia Gentileschi, a 17th century Italian painter, which he recalls seeing at Windsor Castle.

“Her way with the human body is really quite delicate yet savage.” He adds, “That’s unusual for a woman painter.”

When asked if he has ever written about a Jewish subject before, Barker quips, “Not knowingly.”

Barker, like Prud’homme, is not Jewish, but they both have uncovered one of the hidden secrets from history, that of a Jewish woman, who will make a tragic sacrifice that will haunt her for the rest of her life, yet will save her people. In some ways, that is a universal dilemma, one that speaks to people of all nations.

No doubt thinking of the Iraq War and all the other tragedies in the world right now, Prud’homme says, “Things happened then, and they are still happening now.”
“Judith” may indeed provide a parable for our present day. What warrior in Iraq wouldn’t want to have such an exchange with a clever woman:

“I have no equal in the field [that] I’ve made my specialty.”

“Which field is that — murder or philosophy?”

Though Barker mixes in profanity of a modern idiom, his is primarily a sublime diction. Words like “aperture” and “interstices” effortlessly flow out of the mouth of Holofernes, who may be less like Jason or Oedipus and more like Hamlet. When Holofernes says of his battlefield exploits, “I am at these moments most like a God,” one is reminded of Hamlet’s, “What a piece of work is a man” speech when the Prince of Denmark says, “in apprehension, how like a God.”

Like Hamlet, Holofernes does not simply marvel at mankind; in fact, he exudes disgust at man and himself. One would not be surprised to hear him refer to us all as a “quintessence of dust.”

Holofernes, though, lacks Hamlet’s ability to read his enemies. One can’t imagine Hamlet being tempted by any woman, except perhaps Rosalind. But that would be a different play altogether, a comedy in the Forest of Arden. Instead, we have a tragedy in the Holy Land. Much like today.

“Judith: A Parting From the Body” plays Nov. 30 through Dec. 16, Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., at the Theater of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. For more information, call (323) 856-8611.