Life & Culture

The biblical story of Song of Songs hits the London stage

Jewish and Arab Ofra Daniel represents the half of Israel the haters prefer to ignore. She tells our writer how her identity is bound up in her musical about being trapped in a loveless marriage


Exuberantly expressive: Ofra Daniel

I’ll tell you a secret about women,” says Ofra Daniel. “If a woman walks into the room and she is organised differently, women notice something about her.”

Tirzah, the character played by Daniel in her musicalised show, is such a woman. The work is based on and named after the biblical Song of Songs and Tirzah has a secret lover, or so she thinks. And her peers, the women of Jerusalem, can tell just by looking at her.

Written, composed and directed by Daniel, the show, which was a winner of a San Francisco Critics Award for best new production, arrives at the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park, north London as a completely new version with dancers and five on-stage musicians include Ramon Ruiz of the Gypsy Kings, who plays flamenco lead guitar.

The plot is simple enough. Stranded in a loveless marriage, Tirzah discovers she has an anonymous admirer.

“I was going through a divorce when I wrote it,” says Daniel, though without necessarily linking her private life with Tirzah’s.

“My ex husband is an actor and I was gong to direct him in a one-man show. And he said he couldn’t do it, it was too intense between us. But I had already booked the theatre and I was already committed to putting a show. I didn’t have a lot of money at that time so I thought if I write the music and I take it from the Song of Songs I don’t need to pay royalties.”

Five minutes earlier the exuberantly expressive Daniel was as still as a heron watching her cast with a director’s forensic eye. When she joins them, however, her Tirzah is loose-limbed, light and graceful.

“I call it the cook song,” she says of the number they were working on. “It is the order of operation for women. You wake up at dawn, the rooster is crowing, the house is asleep, but you’re up and going, you cook, you bake, you clean, you rake, you take no break,” she says, the words tumbling like lyrics from one of her songs.

“This is a feminist play in a way," she adds.

Israeli, Arab and Jewish, though not necessarily in that order, Daniel is now based in San Francisco with her teenage children. There is a sensibility to her show that draws on the culture of her antecedents and her childhood, an identity that informs not only her art but her attitude to the country in which she was born.

“I was born in Bat Yam in Israel,” she says, a coastal city she sums up as, “drugs and prostitutes and lots of immigrants [in the form of] an isolated Russian community”.

Her mother came from Libya at the age of five, her father arrived from Iraq when he was nine. The families of both children were escaping antisemitic persecution, though life in Israel was by no means prejudice-free.

“They put my father in temporary housing for 20 years. No heat. No water. No showers. His level of trauma as a human being was immense.

“My mother never finished elementary school,” she continues. “They were Arab Jews so they were considered ‘less than’. I grew up listening to the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. When my mother cleaned the house she would sing in Arabic, and I would always stop and listen because I could tell the music was coming from somewhere else.”

The richness – and poverty – of Daniel’s childhood has also informed her view of the Arab-Israeli conflict. When she was in the IDF and stationed in bases close to Arab villages, the language of her grandparents floated to her on the warm breeze.

“I’m going to get emotional, but I would hear it and wonder if I was in the wrong place.”

She remembers too seeing Ilan Hatzor’s explosive Israeli play Masked by Ilan Hatzor about three Palestinian brothers living in the West Bank, and being profoundly affected by it. Set during the Intifada in 1990, the work is written in Hebrew and has been acclaimed for its sensitivity towards Palestinians living under Israeli rule.

“I saw it when I was a soldier and actually fell apart,” remembers Daniel, “because you have the ‘good guys’ and ‘the bad guys’ and you know where you are from and which one you are and then it all collapses because humanity is never just one thing or another. Never.”

This private struggle has become heightened with the war in Gaza. “One of my friends lost her only child at the Nova festival massacre. But I don’t want to go back to Israel until the war is over. Because me being there with my family and knowing what is happening in Gaza just an hour away, I just can’t.”

Daniel is the embodiment of the kind of Israel that many Israel-haters prefer to ignore. If for them the country is populated by “colonialist” white people of European origin, Daniel represents the Arab, Middle Eastern and African half of the Jewish state they either prefer not to acknowledge or simply do not know exists.

“People who do not know there were Jews in Arab countries are surprised. Most stories about Israel in the history books are of Jews coming from Eastern Europe. The stories of Jews coming from Arab countries have not been [properly] told yet.”

Will she visit after the war finishes?

“I would. The way people live their lives in Israel is amazing. There is war but that makes people appreciate life even more. There is a resiliency, a joie de vivre. People really do seize the day because they know the day is fragile.”

Inevitably all this complexity is somehow bound up in A Song of Songs.

“I’m not trying to make a statement, I’m trying to show human existence. I’m telling a story of a woman who lives as part of a village who is part of a social structure. And I use music from my roots because the story sits on the Middle Eastern beat. I don’t see myself at trying to fix things, rather as giving a voice.”

A Song of Songs is at The Park Theatre until June 15

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