Marcus Freed is a man of many talents — actor, writer, poet, impresario. He is the inventor of Bibliyoga, a text-based system of yoga, and has a head for religious texts in general. But his greatest undertakings have been three plays in a loose series which Freed stars, co-writes, and stages.
Solomon: King, Poet, and Lover is a lot of things, too. It manages to juggle comedy, tragedy, politics and history at once, and using an impressive array of storytelling techniques from performance poetry to stand-up comedy. It’s almost impossible to avoid comparisons to Shakespeare — due both to the mixture of the highbrow and the lowbrow, as well as to Freed’s pulling double-duty as writer and actor — but he also mixes in elements of everything from Mel Brooks to The Office.
This weekend, Marcus Freed will perform at Jewlicious on the Beach in L.A. alongside Matisyahu, G-dcast‘s Sarah Lefton, and a bunch of other folks. Luckily, though, MJL got a private session to ask about his show, his favorite biblical hero, and why Bible stories get so hot and heavy.
Right from the subtitle of the performance — “King, Poet & Lover” — it’s pretty clear that you’re taking King Solomon on an irreverent, non-traditional ride. On the other hand, you’re getting raves from pretty traditional folks like Joseph Telushkin and Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks. How do you tell the line between being playfully irreverent and crossing over into the sacrilegious?
It’s a difficult balance. For me, this is very much about trying to find a truthful interpretation of the biblical stories. There’s a real danger of flattening the whole thing by trying to be reverent towards what’s essentially a sacred text, but I believe that as long as the intention is correct — for me, to get a real understanding of what it’s about and to connect with the stories in a meaningful way — then I’m happy to play fast and loose with the biblical characters. But it took me a long time to ‘come out’ and say this. Jews are great at religious repression but when we try and pretend stuff isn’t there, we miss the point.
Let’s look at the Bible as it is: Solomon slept with over 1000 women. His father David had a man killed so that he could have the woman he wanted, and the prophet Elisha had a bunch of children killed when they insulted him. It’s all too easy to sweep these stories under the carpet because they don’t fit with our notion of what’s ‘right’, or ‘correct’, or G-d forbid, ‘frum’. These are real people with very real dilemmas! The Bible is full of people who laugh, cry, get scared, mess up relationships, kill siblings, get jealous, f–k up beyond belief — and if we take the time to struggle with these stories and find what they mean to us, it can be an immensely rewarding and spiritually nourishing experience.
Playfully irrelevant or utterly sacrilegious? It’s all down to intention. I love being Jewish, I love our stories and our texts, but I refuse to receive or transmit some over-sanitised version if it makes the whole thing meaningless to me. Of course there’s a time and a place, but the Biblical canon is downright fantastic! Not to mention terrific source material for any writer.
On the other hand, it’s sometimes hard to read our modern morality onto the story of Solomon–his wives, his concubines — even the way his parents met. Were there parts that you wanted to exclude, or parts that you especially struggled with?
You betcha. We (myself and co-writer Raphael Zarum) first wrote the play when I was 25, pretty inexperienced and a little scared of what the whole thing was about. But is it really that hard to read our modern morality into the story of Solomon? Have you never met anyone who’s been through a bunch of fleeting physical relationships and experienced utter emptiness as a result? An outrageous Lothario who suddenly finds that he’s become so desensitised through sex that when it comes to having a real relationship he’s flawed by a woman who just wants to talk? Solomon and Sheba is one such example, both a love story and a tragedy.
I struggled with various parts of the play at various times. There was some rabbinic opposition to the lewdness and bawdiness, but we’re just presenting what’s really there in the text. The struggle is to reconcile the various parts of Solomon’s character — King of Israel, Writer of the Song of Songs, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, builder of the first Temple, and husband to many, many women.
What made you pick this specific format–poetry, and mostly iambic poetry at that? The performance feels a bit like a stand-up routine, a bit like a lecture (in a good way!), and partly a theater performance….
I was inspired by Shakespeare’s history cycle. Solomon first spoke out as a kind of Prince Hal type figure, drinking and wenching his way through princely life before he has to settle down and become King. The amazing shift between Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 and Henry V show a character who sheds his former characteristics to become a great King of England. Except Solomon doesn’t quite manage that. He wants it all, but ends up with nothing.
The format was a specific nod to Shakespeare, using iambic pentameter for the regal characters and free prose for the more common folk, whilst the device of a chorus (or narrator) was helpful for filling in some gaps and expressing plot.
I liked it so much that when it came to writing Elijah: First Action Hero, the prophet Elijah speaks entirely in the same style of verse, iambic pentameter, which hopefully gives the audience a sense of his nobility.
Which historical sources did you use–besides the Book of Kings itself, of course?
We scoured the range of Jewish sources that are available. Midrash, commentaries, Talmud, historical documents about the Temple, and anything else that came to hand. It was crucial that we rooted the play within the tradition.
There are so many things — like Solomon asking which wife he’s scheduled with that evening — that are so honestly curious, that there must be some sort of historical record of, or commentary about. Or is it more of a free interpretation?
All of it is free interpretation based on authentic Jewish sources. So, the scene you are referring to is based in a Midrash that says Solomon had conjugal visits with three different wives EVERY NIGHT so that he could see them all within a year. There must have been some system for choosing who he was going to see — we just tried to tell the story…
When I was a kid, I loved King Solomon because he always seemed to be this huge nerd–he had the gift of wisdom, he built the Temple, and was always David’s most bashful son. When I was old enough to read about the 700 wives thing, however, What made you want to check out King Solomon? Does he have any special connection to him?
The play was originally commissioned by the Limmud conference in Britain, who were running a seminar with the theme of ‘Time.’ We began with the words, “There’s a time for everything under the sun” and worked back from there — who wrote it? what made them write it? and so on. And then I discovered this character who was one huge paradox — he is an absolute gift both as a writer and an actor.
You do a bunch of other plays — there’s First Action Hero, of course, and The Madness of King Saul. What draws you to the historical personalities that you’re drawn to?
Early on, I set the ambition of writing a cycle of plays akin to Shakespeare’s history cycle. I love the way that you can watch the histories right through, from Richard II to Henry IV, V & VIII and so forth — why hasn’t anyone written a cycle based on the Books of Kings? So, it made sense to have The Madness of King Saul followed by Solomon: King, Poet & Lover and then Elijah: First Action Hero, although there are a few too many kings to write about so maybe the next play will zip through a few in one go…
I love the fact that these are major leaders who have challenges, flaws and thwarted ambitions. If they find life so challenging and mess up on such a major scale, gives some hope to the rest of us.
Aside from the proliferation of relationships, Solomon is known for writing (or, at least, attributed) the most sexual book of the Bible, Song of Songs, and the most depressing and nihilistic one, Ecclesiastes. What is it about certain people that lend themselves to extremes? Did writing in Solomon’s voice give you any insight into his character and personality, or did it feel more like you putting together a few pieces of a very big puzzle?
The puzzle! Is Ecclesiastes a nihilistic/depressing book or a zen-like acceptance of life as it is? The more I’ve traveled with Solomon, and the more I’ve lived since first writing it, the more interpretations present themselves. It is certainly revealing to write about such a character and to write in his voice, and it’s become easier to understand how he was so extreme – he had everything, tried everything, tasted everything, drew from a seemingly endless bank account and then paid a major price for it all. He plunged his country into financial debt in order to build the Temple and created a huge spiritual debt as he built idols for all of his foreign wives. In some ways the whole thing has powerful contemporary messages.
What do you think King Solomon would have thought of your show? And of your leather pants?
He’d have loved it. Although he might have preferred it as a one-woman show with more dancing. And the trousers were some kind of satin texture rather than leather, but I presume that Shlomo HaMelech would have commissioned some trousers made out of hand-woven Egyptian cotton…
On a more serious note, I would hope that the play would send some chills through King Solomon if he were to see it. Our latest version of the script tries to explore the full arc of his character, going through all of his experiences and then feeling the full consequences of his actions. It’s tough stuff.
Are you working on anything now?
I’m busy writing away on my Bibliyoga project — it’s about spirituality through the body and I’m writing a series of “Kosher Sutras” which are basically spiritual lessons based on Jewish wisdom that you can experience through yoga.
There’s also the ongoing work of polishing and rewriting the plays. I’m currently in LA touring with Solomon: King, Poet & Lover and Elijah: First Action Hero, and the thing about these works is that the more I live the characters, the more I need to add and amend the scripts. Solomon has grown from a three-act play in its first incarnation to the current four-act version and the challenge is that the more I experience life, the more I can understand the plays, and the more words there are for the characters to speak.
I’m looking forward to a time when I can get a theatre residency and perform this trilogy of plays at the same time, running Saul, Solomon and Elijah on successive days and nights. The Madness of King Saul is a much tougher piece and I’ve only ever performed it twice because it goes into the mind of a manic depressive who ends up at the helm of a country. One day at a time — for now it’s a sunny road trip with the company of a wenching King and a renegade Prophet. There are definitely worse ways to earn a living.