Wednesday 15 February 2023

SONGS OF THE FLESH: Theatre Review

What: Songs of the Flesh
When: 14 - 18 February
Where: Theatre Works (Explosives Factory)
Written by: Chris Beckey
Directed by: Stephen Mitchell Wright
Performed by: Josh Blake and Scott Middleton
Lighting by: Sidney Younger
Costumes by: Kristine Von Hilderbrant

Scott Middleton and Josh Blake - Photo by Tom Noble

Every so often a show comes along, and you know from the very first moment that it was created by people who know nothing other than originality backed by a ridiculous understanding of storytelling. Songs of the Flesh, currently running at the Explosives Factory as part of Midsumma, is one of those shows.

Songs of the Flesh has been twice written by Chris Beckey and is an ode to love, a plea to humanity, and a dirge to innocence. This tragic tale takes us from bucolic wonder into a steamy urban world of lust and - eventually - love. We all know that love is hard, and for some demographics the community makes it outrageously more difficult and painful. Does love die? I don't think so. Innocence does though. Perhaps an alternative title for this show is The Death of Innocence.

I say this show has been twice written because Beckey first wrote and performed it in around 2000. Inspired by Kate Bush's song 'The Song of Solomon', Beckey tried to convey their experiences through the reworking of the biblical text known as 'Song of Songs' (also known as Songs of Solomon). 

It is no surprise that Beckey found themself so intrigued by this text. It is a curious creature to sit within the Old Testament. It is an erotic poem of unknown provenance and churches across time have struggled to find a way to legitimize it within the biblical cannon, creating the most hilarious analogies of the man in the poem being god and the women being his flock but anyone with any text analysis skill will read it and call bullshit. This conflict between religion and text makes the Song perfect for investigation by the Queer community.

Moving forward to more recent times, Beckey revisited and rewrote the play. Now here comes the stroke of pure genius. Stephen Mitchell Wright (Director) reads both scripts and asks the question what happens if they are both performed simultaneously. The answer is pure magic.

Creating a kind of science fiction/parallel universe aesthetic Josh Blake (Boy from the Plains) and Scott Middleton (Boy from the Forest) tell their story together. Naturally there are sections of identical text - especially at the start, so they begin together, each performing a show which is the same but different. The effect of this is to create a universality of experience which makes the joy sweeter, and the pain deeper. When the texts diverge repetitions occur but at different times which gives a sense of the same  experiences across all time.

Songs of the Flesh is physical theatre, and very excellently choreographed and directed. Both actors dance and move and wrestle across the playing space, each movement reminding us that this story is about the flesh and its wants and needs which juxtapose against the higher ideals of literature and language. All of their 3-dimensional liveness sits before looming 2-dimensional projections telling us we are moving through the chapters of this tale of woe just as we would read through chapters of the Song. (I really love the graphics although no AV designer is credited). These juxtapositions are mirrored in the sod surrounding the foot lights and the huge, looming double bed colonising centre stage. There is a ladder. I don't want to talk about the ladder. Ladder be gone! You offend mine eyes!

Sidney Younger's lighting design is fabulous too which is a real skill because the Explosives Factory is one of those venues with limited technical resources. Whilst I can see there are possibilities for more nuance, he capably moves us from intimate to anonymous, to night clubs, to danger and dark, to soft and simple. This is no easy task in a staging which is wide and white and dominated by projections. I also want to give a shout out to Peta Coy (Stage Manager) who operates all of the technology with precision and seamless integration.

Songs of the Flesh does its job perfectly and magically because as I sat watching it, all I came away with is the question 'why can't we all just let people be who they feel they want/need to be?' In the program notes Beckey talks about how weird it is that religion, which is supposed to be all about love, can hold such hate (Leviticus is the example cited in the show). I say if you look around, all of history's greatest atrocities have been committed in the name of religion in one form or another. The one great truth is religion is all about creating an 'other' and woe betide anyone who falls into that category for whatever made up reason is concocted. I would also say stay away from the Old Testament. That shit is made to mess up heads for sure!

Songs of the Flesh is a refreshing piece of theatre in its creativity. I would suggest it is a fraction too long but the only remedy would be a script edit. Everything about staging and timing seems perfect to me in its current form. 

You only have a few more performances to catch so please do try and get to see it. It is a beautiful and tragic tale of the highest order and told by masters of their craft. 

4.5 Stars


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