Song of Faith and Devotion?

What:   The Song of Songs
Where: The Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon
  6th March 2012

The King James Bible is by any standards a major work of literature. It has recently been celebrating its 400th anniversary and has influenced all the streams of major English literature since the early 17th century – including the writing of William Shakespeare. And therefore it is perfectly natural that the Royal Shakespeare Company would mark this anniversary with a pair of productions – one which traces its origins (Written on the Heart) and one which revels in its language (The Song of Songs).

But we live in a secular age so what is the purpose of the celebration? To mark its influence on the language surely: but as of past importance or present?

The choice of “The Song of Songs” as a production where the movement grows out of the text is instructive. It is one of only two books of the Bible which does not mention God by name and even for those who see the book has some kind of allegory, it is the most erotic and sensual.

The director, Struan Leslie, sees it as an anomaly in the Bible and is confident that it has undergone many changes before taking the form which is part of the current canon. Mr Leslie also tells us that he has no interest in religion or organised faith. Aside from his lack of interest in those areas making him a peculiar choice to direct this production, I must take task with his opinions. I’m far more studied in these matters than Mr Leslie and both theological studies and studies in church history leave me confident that the community of faith has seldom seen The Song of Songs as an anomaly and there is no traceable history, to speak of, of amendments to the text. The former is against modern and historical opinion and the latter is idle speculation, a view which cannot be built on facts. The title, the Song of Songs does not arise from the text and that the community of faith has given this title to the book is a sign of how high the esteem that it is held in by those who have seen it as part of God’s word.

The Bible is not a politically correct volume and violence and sex rear their heads on virtually every page. Sexual imagery is in no short supply and whilst I think those who see The Song of Songs as purely allegorical are as mad as a box of frogs, there is no reason to think that Solomon’s book would have made his father or any of the other authors of the Bible blush (well, not more than a little).

I also have some issues with the RSC and the manner in which they have approached this production. Firstly, as I approach the theatre, there is no publicity anywhere to be seen to suggest that the RSC has a production called The Song of Songs – or that it is being performed today. Secondly, Mr Struan’s production has some merit and it is only being performed on three occasions – I would have opted for far more performances. Thirdly, the press release which was given to the local and religious press had little to say about the production’s merits but sought to stir up some controversy about the fact it was a non-religious production and to align it with the sexually overt production Marat / Sade which gained the RSC no little notoriety last year. This production is not sexually overt and if the RSC had managed to produce an overtly religious reading of The Song of Songs I would have thought they had lost their minds and did indeed resemble the amphibians I alluded to earlier.

So what are its strengths, this production of The Song of Songs? Well, let us begin with the music. The guitars of Nicholas Lee, the double bass of Mat Heighway, and the vocals and percussion give us a sound which is not dissimilar to the work of Marc Johnson and particularly his Right Brain Patrol but derivation aside this is a stark and imaginative soundtrack which adds to the movement but never overpowers it.

Then we have the dance and movement, itself which captures exactly the right spirit of eroticism and longing, touch and distance that the book evokes. Liz Crowther and Rebecca Brewer are particularly notable. Crowther all elegance, Brewer all youth and energy. I’m no dance critic but on the whole I could see where the movement had arisen from the text all though there was one scene where Sam Marks and Mark Quartley seemed to be wrestling (in the manner of the sporting Olympics not the sexual ones) which lost me completely but on the whole…….

The spoken text was built upon by voices echoing the speech of the other actors which allowed the depth of feeling of the words to be magnified and that sense of longing and appreciation to be built up.

But I can’t be entirely positive. One of the hallmarks of the text is that sense of devotion that is in the longing of the words, that sense that nothing else can satisfy other than to find the truly beloved. The dancers here interact in a way that causes them to change partners every few moments. The sense of devotion is ignored or trampled upon. It would have been far better to have three devoted partners rather than this unhelpful interchange. At times, as one couple touches whilst the others watch from a table at the back of the stage, it resembles a bordello or 1960s orgy rather than a proposal of marriage bed dating from a 1000 years before Christ.

But on the whole…… this is much better than most anything the RSC has produced recently. With better publicity, it would have offended no-one and played to full houses for more nights, rather than the empty seats that are only too evident this evening.

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