Review: The Song of Deborah

A feminist take on Deborah


By John Jeffay, June 10, 2011
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The Lowry, Salford

Passion in Deborah Freeman’s unorthodox version of the Bible story

Passion in Deborah Freeman’s unorthodox version of the Bible story

The Bible is packed with male prophets, but there are just seven who are women.

And among them Deborah is notable for being not only a prophet, but also a judge, a warrior and a poet.

This intriguing, passionate and defiantly non-traditional take on her story - on a short run at the Lowry's studio theatre - has more girl power and more gods than the original.

The biblical Song of Deborah, from which the play takes its name, celebrates a remarkable military victory. After 20 years of strife, Israel, led by Deborah (Emma Beattie) with her general, Baraq (George Geogiou), massacres its mighty Canaanite enemy, led by Sisera (Scott Ainslie).

Playwright Deborah Freeman, from Cheadle, south Manchester, has expanded two brief chapters from the Book of Judges, to ask some big questions about the nature of war, heroism, the way that history is written by the victors and the battle between monotheism and Canaanite idolatry.

There is a nod to Israel's current disputes

There is also, inevitably, something of a nod towards Israel and its current territorial disputes, some 3,000 years on.

The basic story remains. Freeman champions the feminist credentials of her two heroines - Deborah and Yael (Kate Burdette). Deborah is the strong, self-assured, divinely inspired leader. God tells her that her arch-enemy, Sisera, will die by the hand of a woman.

But it is Yael, wife of Heber the Kenite, who actually does the heroic deed. After Sisera's all-powerful army is routed he alone survives, and takes refuge in her tent. She gives him milk to make him sleep, then famously hammers a tent peg into his head.

Feeeman's reading of the biblical account is less than orthodox. She spices things up by adding a couple of Canaanite deities - Anat, goddess of battles and Baal, god of storms - to whom Sisera prays. The two are involved in a very active and graphic incestuous relationship.

More unorthodox still is the faith wobble that Deborah suffers after the victory, as she is tempted away from one God to many.

Deborah is not only victorious on the battlefield. Freeman also depicts her as peacemaker, aiming to avert war if possible and employing feminine intuition rather than macho force where possible. As she dispenses justice under her palm tree, she offers to write a poem to ease the grief of a mother whose child has died.

With Freeman's feminist agenda it can be no accident that the three most forceful characters - Deborah, Yael, and the sex-mad Anat - are all women.

This is a thoughtful and powerful piece, directed by Abbey Wright, with some strong performances, especially from Beattie and Ainslie. It is well-written, engaging, effectively and minimally staged, but it is also a tad puzzling. Yes, the way is signposted for those unfamiliar with the sequence of events, but there is still a slight sense of bewilderment, a feeling that you're not quite grasping it all. I went to the first night and lived on my wits. The audience at subsequent performances had the benefit of a synopsis.

    Last updated: 10:48am, June 10 2011