Salome review at the National Theatre, London – ‘a frustrating retelling’
She’s been painted, written about and fetishised by men for two millennia. Director Yael Farber, returning to the National Theatre after her stunning production of Les Blancs last year, is determined to reclaim Salome’s story: how she danced for men, demanded the head of John the Baptist as a reward, and ignited a revolution.
But in drawing together all the threads of Salome from scripture, theatre and art across centuries Farber, who writes and directs, creates a peculiar play, driven by imagery both literary and visual, and deflated by taking itself too seriously.
We get lavish spectacle: tableaux that recall Renaissance paintings, ladders reaching to the heavens and cascades of sand in Susan Hilferty’s stunning design. Already a very slow production, there are moments when it completely stops still to capture posed snapshots. Often they’re beautiful and they force our gaze onto this erased woman, as if the play is painting her back into existence.
Farber also uses the image of Salome’s raped and sexualised body as a metaphor for not only the kingdom of Judaea under the Romans but every vassal, every colonised city ever. It’s undeniably powerful.
Despite its strengths in concept, the execution is frequently disappointing. Drawing on diverse sources – the Song of Solomon, Oscar Wilde’s play and the Roman historian Josephus among others – Farber’s script sounds like a bad translation of a Greek tragedy, with a shot of King James archness added for good measure. It’s full of “whences” and “whereupons”, lines intended to sound profound that clang badly instead.
Olwen Fouere plays Nameless – an ageing Salome – with slow, portentous delivery that pushes the play into parody. There’s absolutely no variation of tone in her performance and it makes whatever she has to say sound grandiose and hollow.
Two women provide a wailing soundtrack for most of the production which, chilling at first, becomes intensely grating by the end. And that ending builds to a point where, far from the rich web of text, far from the dazzling imagery that the beginning promises, instead we have all the elements for a 1980s pop ballad video: billowing diaphanous sheets, mist, flailing arms.
The trouble is the way it vacillates in quality. One minute Paul Chahidi as Herod and Isabella Nefar as ‘Salome so-called’ brilliantly perform a repellent, squirm-inducing scene as he forces his finger down her throat in an expression of lust. The next is an interminable exchange of trite similes between Nefar and Ramzi Choukair’s Iokanaan (or John the Baptist).
Every few minutes the production reaches a majestic peak and collapses. It makes its point quickly, then labours it with an onslaught of solemnity and histrionics. Salome is retold here, recontextualised too, but for all the thought behind the production, she is not reclaimed.