A Song of Songs, Park Theatre, stage review: ‘Entertaining and eye-opening’

Ofra Daniel in A Song of Songs. Photograph: Pamela Raith

Did you know that the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) has an erotic section of poems supposedly written by King Solomon?

Maybe you did, you clever thing, but I certainly didn’t.

The production giving life to this holy book, A Song of Songs, is making its UK premiere at the Park Theatre – educating, entertaining, and opening eyes as it goes.

Let’s jump in place and time a little from 10th-century Jerusalem to San Francisco in 2017.

Ofra Daniel – writer, director, composer, and lead actress (we’ll come onto that later) – stages a musical reinterpretation of the ancient love poems.

She interweaves Klezmer, Flamenco, and Middle Eastern styles, and wins the San Francisco Critics Award for best new production.

Now the show is here, crash-landing in Finsbury Park. Quite a journey through space and time, isn’t it?

The raunchy, rhapsodic nature of the original text is perspective-shaking, but the music is like a drink of sweet nectar, like the swaying of Lebanese cedars, like… you can see how easily influenced I am.

Composer Lior Ben-Hur, in partnership with Daniel, Ali Paris and Yuval Ron, has created an auditory sensation.

On the rather plain stage, we have Ramón Ruiz plucking away on lead flamenco guitar, Daniel Gouly’s wailing clarinet, Amy Price’s skittering Klezmer violin, Ant Romero (percussionist) and Ashley Blasse (upright bass) providing skeletal support.

Even as the audience files into the space, they jam and improvise, letting us know we are in good and quick-moving hands.

The mix of Spain, Middle East, and Klezmer provides a folky score with blast, soul, and tenderness. Songs are in a mix of English and Hebrew and range from gossipingly comic to eye-wateringly sad.

Story- and acting-wise, there are glinting pomegranate seeds in this tabbouleh.

The tale follows Tirzah in her search for the meaning of both love and herself.

Pressured by her family into an arranged marriage, she chafes and yearns for escape, only to find it in a mysterious letter writer (no spoilers, but think biblical catfish).

Matthew Woodyatt is her fisherman husband, as well as a father and narrator, and what a formidable set of pipes he has.

Joaquin Pedro Valdes is the distant lover, with sex appeal flowing like the Nile, also multi-rolling as an aunt with comic chutzpah.

Laurel Dougall, Rebecca Giacopazzi, Shira Kravitz, and Ashleigh Schuman (in her amazing musical theatre debut) are the bitchy wives of Jerusalem and various family members.

An original chorus in the poems, the energy and scarf-swishing choreography keep the piece buzzing, like barbed words darting around the parched courtyards of the ancient city.

When it works, we get elements of Fiddler On The Roof (but not quite as good), Prince of Egypt (arguably better), and, in the bluer moments, Hadestown (again, a tough comparison).

Now it can’t all be golden sun rays, can it?

The fly in the ointment is also its creator, so I’ll tread carefully.

Daniel, bringing together a radiating and diverse range of talent, has a bright eye for a good story and clever interpretation.

But with so many strings overloading her bow, some snap, especially the incredibly demanding role of Tirzah.

Stepping back and allowing another actress to focus completely on the role would have massively improved the piece, and given Daniel more space to focus on directing.

Perhaps this would also allow her and Marina Paz to come up with a more imaginative set. Grey boxes and a couple of vines do not the great city of Jerusalem make.

However, Paz’s gauzy and luminous costumes almost make up for this in their rich embroidery and tassels.

The play does, though, remind us of the breadth of religious literature, the commonality of human sexual experience, and the importance of cross-border collaboration.

If you want to get hot under the collar this summer, but also feel particularly righteous while doing it, A Song of Songs is the Abrahamic party for you.

A Song of Songs runs until 15 June at Park Theatre.