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Review: A Song of Songs (Park Theatre)

Review by Sam Waite

 

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

 

When seeking material to influence her next theatrical work, a lack of time and money necessitated that Ofra Daniel select something without hefty licensing fees attached. The Song of Songs, or of Solomon depending on variation and translation, struck her as a story rife with possibilities, exploring female sensuality and the longing for romance while interpreted by others as purely metaphorical, an examination of the Jewish peoples’ relationship with God. Taking on the roles of writer, director, composer, and star, Daniels created A Song of Songs, which she now brings to the Park Theatre for its European debut.

 


Tirzah has lived as a mystery to those around her for years, eternally waiting in the open for someone who may or may not come and find her. Before making the grand journey that led to this mocking, fascinated community, she was captured and banished from Jerusalem when found running naked through the streets, screaming only snippets of songs and poems. Having continued to communicate only through poetic musings, we gather alongside the young ladies of the town as they observe her maddening state, and listen as she tells the tale of how she came to be in such an exposed state, and hint at who – or what – she is waiting to be found by.

 

In parts, Daniel’s text is only loosely connected to its source, while other moments match exactly to Solomon’s (if this attribution is to be believed) erotic poetry. As can be the case with poetry, the story can also shift briskly from blunted and all-too-easy to follow, and so abstract that one has to question how much we are meant to be following – the ending, without giving it away, opens as many new questions as it answers, and demands that we come to our own conclusions about quite what happened to end the simple if unenthused life Tirzah has been living. Still, her words – spoken or sung – never leave the emotions of a scene in doubt, and even as I found myself questioning its final scenes (“If you understand what happened,” I asked a friend mid-applause, “talk to me like I’m a five-year-old.”) I couldn’t deny that I’d found them deeply affecting.

 


A quartet of women – Laurel Dougall, Rebecca Giacopazzi, Shira Kravitz, and Ashleigh Schuman – portray various townsfolk, family members, onlookers, and even guardsman. Each is bright and expressive, particularly while dancing, and their strong vocals make for spectacular group songs. The choreography, while initially flashy and captivating, does fall back on its handful of tricks a touch too often – Billy Mitchell makes good use of the ladies’ skirts and the on-stage bandstand, but eventually it becomes apparent there’s only so much that can be done with what’s available to him. The onstage musicians help to fill out any imagined crowds, reacting openly to the proceedings onstage and with violinist Amy Price occasionally dancing her way into the dancers’ midst, being shooed away in one more dramatic moment of confrontation.

 

Marina Paz’s design is understated, a plain bandstand with a moveable ramp, and a vine-wrapped ladder at the far side of the stage. This allows for the entire ensemble to be seen clearly, and to execute their turns and skirt-waving without the worry of bruising their colleagues, and the ladder serves as both another room and the usual locale of Tirzah’s mysterious Lover, never quite entering scenes but always a looming presence over them. Sound design from Andrew Johnson helps to sell the fullness of crowds, the vocals so convincingly coming from behind me that I nearly turned to look quizzically at what I genuinely thought was a patron behind me singing along – “How do you know the song?!” I was ready to ask, before thankfully realising my mistake in the nick of time.

 


The men in Tirzah’s life, her fishmonger husband and the imagined version of her lover, who showers her with anonymous praise while staying out of her sight, are played by Matthew Woodyatt and Joaquin Pedro Valdes. Woodyatt is often relegated to a supporting part by the husband’s lack of attention from his wife, who finds him dull and who is dismayed at their inability to conceive a child, but he is at the crux of some weightier moments, and brings a real sense of sorrow to a rapidly declining marriage. Valdes, crooning the Lover’s songs with a strong, clear belt and a look of lustful hunger on his face – admittedly, I noticed one or two notes lower in his range catch during his distant seduction, but how many times can a make dash on and off of a ladder before his breath is sure to falter? A solid comedic actor in ensemble parts elsewhere, Valdes’ lean into sensuality is striking and his presence is commanding.

 

Well, Valdes is mostly commanding. When Daniel is centre-stage, throwing herself into rapturous movement, or delivering impassioned speeches about the new feelings her Lover is evoking in her… then it’s a challenge to look anywhere else. Laid bare emotionally, Daniel made me forget how little we really knew about this woman, so close were her desires and anguishes to the surface, and so open and expressive was her movement. Having created and honed the piece over several years and several iterations, it is perhaps no surprise that Ofra Daniel is the strongest part of the production, having written inviting (if not always memorable after the fact) songs, and a passionate script, and delivering a performance worthy of her words.

 


While some will come away from A Song of Songs wishing things had been clearer, or else feeling utterly lost by its abstract choices, I came away brimming with new energy. This isn’t the show for everyone, but it is passionate in its approach, and genuinely has things it wants to say, whether or not these statements come across clearly or not seeming at times not to matter at all – it’s about the longing, the emotion, not the events themselves. With a marvellous group of onstage musicians and a true melding of cultures and ideas, A Song of Songs dances (quite literally) to the beat of its own drum (again, literally!) and it’s hard not to admire these convictions, and the willingness to exist not in black or white, but exclusively shades of grey.

 

A Song of Songs plays at the Park Theatre until June 15th

 

For tickets and information visit https://parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/a-song-of-songs

 

Photos by Pamela Raith

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