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London SE10 9QF

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11 Greenwich Centre Business Park,
53 Norman Road, Greenwich
London SE10 9QF

Cog is a Certified B Corporation

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A Song of Songs at Park Theatre

A Song of Songs at Park Theatre

For our May Cog Night, the team travelled to Finsbury Park, to the wonderful Park Theatre, to see A Song of Songs, written, directed and starring Ofra Daniel. Michael gives us his thoughts.

One of the interesting things about writing a review on our site is that it pushes me to do research and delve more deeply than I probably would do otherwise.

I wasn’t particularly aware of the Song of Songs (which is apparently also known as Canticle of Canticles or the Song of Solomon), although I will have come across it many times through popular culture. The poem has inspired works by many, including Marc Chagall, Toni Morrison and Kate Bush (who all have works named after it), and countless novels, plays and songs quote from it.

This erotic biblical text is controversial for many reasons. Not least because it is focused on unmarried lovers, without a moral or religious lesson. Many scholars argue it shouldn’t be in the biblical cannon at all, but it is because it was allegedly written by Solomon.

In this production, the story is brought to life through the medium of a kind of musical.

“Audience reactions to musicals are often split between those who adore them and those who can’t stand them”, said Ofra Daniel in a recent interview. I have to admit that I’m usually in the latter camp.

Audience reactions to musicals are often split between those who adore them and those who can’t stand them
Ofra Daniel

‘Apprehensive’ is probably how I’d best describe my mood as we sat in the intimate space, with musicians already on stage creating the atmospheric soundscape of Jerusalem and its neighbours (the setting of the story).

The musicians really were very good. Their sound fused Spanish/Moorish influences (provided by Ramon Ruiz, of the Gypsy Kings, who oozed laid-back professionalism on flamenco guitar) with Jewish traditions (provided by clarinetist Daniel Gouly and klezmer violinist Amy Morwenna Price who really ‘performed’ amongst the action). And a shout-out to Mark McQuillan who was standing in on double bass and did a great job.

As the non-musician performers came on, they gave full voice to the opening number.

Matthew Wyatt was a particularly imposing presence, cleverly pulling the narrative together as the narrator, and then becoming the neglectful husband.

In what is a small theatre, huge voices were amplified even further. I guess it helped to even-out a range of performances, but it did make me wince a little and reminded me a tiny bit, just a tiny bit, of a late night Butlin’s ‘entertainment’.

Actually I very quickly got over that and entered into the spirit of it all.

The story centres around Tirzah, a now old woman who has exiled herself to a fishing village and spends her days waving at ships, shunned by society.

Through the gossip of the town-folk, and from Tirzah herself, we hear how, as a younger woman she was married off to an older widower, to care for his home and his sons.

After initial excitement, we hear that she is quickly downtrodden and tired of the domestic drudgery.

But on her birthday, Tirzah receives a passionate love letter from an anonymous admirer and enters into a year of behaving badly.

Flamenco guitar maestro, Ramon Ruiz walking amongst the exuberant dancers Flamenco guitar maestro, Ramon Ruiz walking amongst the exuberant dancers

There’s some fun frolicking with big skirts, some eroticism and belly dancing, and some catchy tunes. All of the cast get to show off their talents and, at one point, Ofra took her top off, giving us the partial nudity we’d been promised / warned about.

A year later, a second letter sends Tirzah rushing to the rooftop for an encounter with the mystery ‘lover’ she is yet to meet. The resulting revelation is (if I understood the story correctly) the thing that is said to have driven her to roam the streets in naked madness before her exile. We didn’t have to bear witness to that.

The libretto was largely lifted from the biblical text so if we did have criticism of the poetry and idioms then it’s Solomon we need to go back to. But Solomon didn’t write in 21st Century English and some of the translations did land awkwardly.

There was a lot of reference to ‘my sister, my lover’ which felt uncomfortable to a modern, Western ear.

your eyes are like doves
Solomon's Song of Songs

And, in the show, I am sure I heard Tirzah’s breasts referred to as being like… “two fawns, grazing among the pomegranates” as well as being like “a handful of dates”.

The translations I’ve read elsewhere are not quite the same, although they are just as clumsy in their similes.

I did look up ‘your eyes are like doves’ – and that does seem to be the commonly accepted translation. How can eyes be like doves? Only through the wisdom of Solomon perhaps.

Ofra Daniel and the cast of A Song of Songs Ofra Daniel and the cast of A Song of Songs

Did A Song of Songs cure me of my antipathy towards musicals? Well, no. But I wouldn’t have gone at all if this hadn’t been a Cog Night so I am pleased to have had the opportunity. And I can see exactly why other people would love a show like this.

I will definitely return to Park Theatre.

Carolina Altavilla created our illustration, see more work on their website.