Risqué Biblical story Song of Songs comes to the stage

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Risqué Biblical story Song of Songs comes to the stage

Israeli actress, writer and composer Ofra Daniel is the star of her show

Louisa Walters is Features Editor at the Jewish News and specialises in food and travel writing

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice saw fit to put Joseph and Jesus on the stage but Ofra Daniel is taking one for the female team with her musical interpretation of the bible story Song of Songs, which opens at Park Theatre next week with her in the lead role.

Chatting to me over Zoom with her hair piled atop her head in a messy bun and giant jangly earrings bobbing up and down, Ofra’s natural beauty and passion for her project were both apparent.

The show has its roots in San Francisco in 2017 where Ofra, 49, has lived since for the past 17 years since leaving Israel with her then-husband and small children and settling in the Bay Area. This is home to around 35,000 Israelis, and she saw an opportunity to form a theatre company called The Hebrew Stage, producing plays by Israeli playwrights with English captions. “Having theatre productions in Hebrew became a phenomenon,” she says.

It was her ex-husband who first steered her towards Song of Songs, at a time when she was looking for new material to work with. “Sometimes as an artist, you look for material that is timeless. We can write things that have an impact, but I felt it was worth going back to my roots and searching for things there, especially having being raised in Israel.

“In Song of Songs I discovered gorgeous erotic poetry that we were never allowed to look at like that, because this prayer has been recited on Friday evening prayers at every synagogue. It’s known by the rabbonim as a love poem between God and the people of Israel and it is attributed to King Solomon. But if you really read the words it is a collection of love poems between a man referred to as ‘my uncle’ and his female lover, who he refers to as ‘my sister’.”

Ofra had studied the Bible and she liked decoding the language. “If you look at all the female characters, they’re mostly wives in support of men. But in Song of Songs she has more poems than he does, meaning her voice is strong, present, bold, provocative. And that’s a female character in the Bible!”

Ofra admits that she took artistic liberty with the poems. “I’m not saying this is the way the book should be read. This is just my intake – as a woman, I felt this. There’s one very beautiful poem in which she describes him from head to toe. As women, we know all about the male gaze – him going over her from head to toe but here you have a woman doing that to her male lover. For me, it was outrageous and sexy. And I knew I had to do something with this.”

Coming from a background of “hardcore drama”, Ofra had not had musical experience. “I actually did not write this show as a musical. I wrote it as a concert; I knew I wanted musicians on stage, I wanted to see them jam, I wanted to see them in their groove and in their happy zone where they are improvising and then get into that ecstatic moment where the drummer is like, you know, going overboard with rhythm.”

Among the five on-stage musicians in the London production is the UK’s leading flamenco guitarist Ramon Ruiz. He asked Ofra how much improvisation she wanted. “Every night,” she said. “I want every night to be different.”

The show, which fuses Middle Eastern harmonics with modern European flamenco, klezmer and dazzling choreography, was a huge hit and won The San Francisco Critics Award for best new production in 2017. Ofra wanted to take it off-Broadway, but says that the theatre scene there has not recovered properly after the pandemic. So London was the natural next stop. “London really is the hub for theatre, and I have a feeling that the audience here will ‘get’ a genre that has verse and poetry, together with music.”

Ofra lives with her three children aged 20, 18 and 16 but most of her family are in Israel. “I’m not happy with what’s happening there,” she says. “I don’t like this war. I want it to end. And I don’t like what’s happening in Palestine – my closest friend is Palestinian. It’s tragic to me from all sides.”

The events of October 7 have even spread their tentacles into Ofra’s work. “There was a line in the show that says that ‘she walked from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv’, and I replaced Tel Aviv with Yafo which is less familiar.”

Her children will be coming to London to see the show. “My son was 11 when I did the show in San Francisco and he went to my daughter and said, ‘Oh, my God, you’re not gonna believe it. Mom’s doing a lot of sexy dancing.’”

Joaquin Pedro Valdes stars opposite Ofra

He may well notice more this time around because there is a strong theme of sexual liberation and “the permission for women to look beautiful and attractive and sexy, and to be in touch with their body without being a sexual object,” says Ofra. “Because in the Song of Songs, physical love, mental love and  platonic love are integrated.

“There is a beautiful line where she says, ‘I’m searching and my heart is yearning, my soul is yearning.’ And then she talks about the physical love. So they are integrated. And I think that is an amazing statement for a woman because a lot of the time religion separates them – the body is one thing, and the mind is another thing. But not in this book.”

Ofra says that men are often stereotyped as only acting on physical ie sexual impulse and that “leaves them no room to be the poet so women go into this cycle of not really knowing or understanding what they have right in front of them. But then there’s the bigger question of passion and desire. Because in the Song of Songs the lovers never meet – they only yearn for one another. That makes me think that desire almost always needs to stay unfulfilled.”

Ofra is working with an entirely new company for the London production. “They are an amazing group of people and their level of commitment is beyond my dreams because we are creating something new. I told them very clearly, from day one, that I have no interest as a creative to do a replica of what I’ve already done. I’m bored – I don’t want to repeat it.”

Filipino actor Joaquim Pedro Valdez, who has appeared on the London stage in Miss Saigon and The King and I, and most recently in Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures at the Menier, plays opposite Ofra as her lover. “He is a charming young man who’s got the physique and the persona and he’s really sexy. He’s strong. He’s got this gorgeous voice. And he’s actually learning Flamenco and Middle Eastern singing. He’s just immersed in this world.”

I have a strong suspicion Park Theatre audiences will also be immersed in the world Ofra and her team are creating.

A Song of Songs is at the Park Theatre, N4, previewing from 9 May. parktheatre.co.uk

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