Yäel Farber is no stranger to controversy and mixed reaction. In her latest endeavour, Salomé at the National Theatre, the audience are pushed to the limit in a radical retelling of the ancient myth. The biblical tale depicting Salomé as the alluring femme fatale who danced naked for Judean King Herod has reverberated across time and become entrenched in the minds of many. Farber attempts to reclaim the narrative in a piece characterised by dramatic set pieces but frustratingly with little substance in between them. In pushing against the canon of representation by the likes of Oscar Wilde (whose Salomé is currently taking to the stage of the RSC in Stratford for the first time) Farber allows Salomé the platform from which to tell her own story and break the silence to which she is condemned at her tragic end. She explains that “having encountered paintings, the Strauss Opera, and the Oscar Wilde text… none of these give any real insight into who she was but rather who we are as a people and as a culture, and what we reflect and project onto the idea onto the idea or image of this nameless woman”. Farber sees theatre as a unifying experience and the “we” is universal and the play delves deeply into the human experience. This is not a piece that is going to be widely enjoyed, in fact the thoughts upon leaving were arguably more interesting that the actual experience, but there is a power here and at points the play harnesses something very raw, and offers a valuable reinterpretation of one of biblical history’s most scorned women.
At its heights, Farber’s Salomé is visually stunning. The play moves from set piece to set piece, a clearly deliberate directorial choice. Through this format the individual phases of the narrative function almost as miniature plays in themselves, each one climaxing into a tableaux that evokes the paintings so often depicted of Salomé and other biblical scenes such as the Last Supper. Susan Hilferty’s set design is impressive throughout, featuring for example a ladder to the heavens and sand cascades. These lead towards various moments where the physical experience of the piece overtakes the drive for narrative. As Farber explains that her (as well as our) frequent interaction with the myth of Salomé is through paintings, and in bringing to life these various images the pace of the play slows almost to a stop, giving the audience has a chance to contemplate the visuals fully. However, unfortunately these sequences come at the cost of the general narrative and this often distorts the pacing of the one act play as the slowing down and speeding up of the action is in many parts confusing and quite tiring as emotion is consistently built up and dissipated in an almost endless sequence.
“This play begins at the end”, we hear in one of the opening monologues, and Farber’s Salomé takes the form of a circular narrative punctuated by changes in time and seemingly unexplained leaps backwards and forwards. The aged “Nameless” Salomé (Olwen Fouéré) tells her own story from the night she is imprisoned, tortured, and ultimately killed by Pontius Pilate. The events of the play are narrated by Fouéré’s external “Nameless” figure, who watches the action alongside the audience and relieves her past, providing a prophetic voice to the predominately silent young Salomé at the centre of the action (played by Isabella Nefar). The story of the niece/stepdaughter of the mighty King Herod is certainly familiar to most but Farber’s latest reinvention distorts our previous notions through its revisionist and heavily stylised reimagining and retelling.
The opening scene has the young Salomé under an opaque sheet with a circular lighting rig hanging above her. The haunting tones of Arabic singers Lubana al Quntar and Yasmin Levy start to stir up the anticipation with their traditional vocals as they then proceed to lift back the sheet and uncover her to the world. While this is a particularly striking image it is soon swamped by a whirlwind of information from the figure of Fouéré, who processes through the central aisle of the auditorium. These long monologues with an excess of metaphors, while when taken line by line are beautiful and imbued with meaning, are somewhat overwhelming when presented all at once. The monotonous tone of the “Nameless” Salomé along with long weighty pauses give every word uttered a sense of prophetic importance that is often inaccessible to the concentration span of the audience. Moving regularly from silent spectacle to word-heavy monologues, the jumps feel somewhat clunky to an audience and at times disconcerting.
As the story unfolds it becomes clear that Salomé, a deeply pious young woman, suffered sexual abuse at the hand of Herod whose possessive lust for her becomes increasingly dark. Farber creates an objectified younger Salomé who is completely silent for the first half of the play: her only expression of noise throughout this time comes through her enchanting drum playing. One of the most powerful scenes of the play sees Herod remove Salomé’s belt in order to rape her. Following this Salomé is presented with a large bowl of sand which she uses in an attempt both to cleanse and bury herself, desperately rubbing the sand against her body and through her hair. This becomes less the fable of an abused woman however, and more the tale of how she transforms the fate of an entire country and through her own empowerment sparks a revolution.
Iokanaan (John the Baptist, played by Ramzi Choukair) is portrayed as the cliché Holy Man, both in his appearance and long metaphor-filled speeches. Despite numerous references to him being naked he saunters around the stage in a loincloth and a shroud speaking in Arabic to background subtitles projected onto the backdrop behind. Quite evocative of Mel Gibson’s Passion of Christ (2004), his speaking in Arabic adds an extra weight to his words and sets them apart from those spoken by the others. This linguistic separation also makes him appear somewhat more alien, as a true native of the land. Choukair admirably gives the character some grit and his charisma and is able to hold an audience across what is at times a very empty stage. His suffering in many ways mirrors the suffering already seen in the treatment of Salomé as he is force-fed in attempts to keep him alive and from being a martyr who would endanger Rome. His body is dragged and moved as Salomé’s often is and hands are forced down his throat. An earlier scene has Herod forcing his finger into Salomé’s mouth: an act that emphasises his possession of her, but also his intrusion into her body. For Iokanaan these intrusions remain personal, showing his victimisation on the path to martyrdom, but with the character of Salomé Farber chooses to explore something greater: the transgressions of her body become symbolic of the transgressions of Rome into her land.
Occupation and colonisation, and their relation to possession, are motifs that run through Faber’s script, but often they are evoked a little too obviously and at points feel shoehorned in to make a point that would be more powerful if left unsaid. One particular example of this is the rather clunky nod to Shakespeare present in the line, “Rome by any other name would taste just as bitter”. The Jews, visually represented by the elders of the Temple of Jerusalem, are put in their place by the incoming Pilate (Lloyd Hutchinson) who declares his plans for civilising the dessert by means of aqueducts. He raids the coffers of the Temple in reaction to their lack of cooperation in the raising of tax. He enforces strict governance reminding them that their freedom to practice their religion is a gift that comes with a price. Statements about the choice of wearing Roman clothes crop up frequently and unexpectedly almost out of the blue and at odds with the rest of the scene. It is only Iokanaan (and later Salomé) that speaks in what appears the native tongue, with all other characters – from Pilate to Herod – united in a common language, and this is one of the most effective parts of Faber’s new imaging of this myth. This linguistic conformity lends an added complicity in the occupation and a feeling of the assimilation that has taken place. Salomé rejects this as she utters nothing until ling above the grate to Iokanaan’s cell where she speaks in English. Following her naked baptism she adopts his language, thus setting herself apart in the same way and denying colonialism.
Running alongside the occupation of land is the metaphor for the occupation of the body. Farber discusses explains that “the land is her, we can colonise a land just as we can colonise a woman’s body, just as we colonise the bodies of natives”. It is not until the climax of her infamous “dance” that Salomé not only reclaims her body but in doing so sets in motion the revolution that will reclaim her land. The two are curiously intermingled. For Farber is appears that the fate of a land lies with the fate of its people and to conquer one it is necessary to conquer the other. Pilate has realised this at the end where only by conquering the “Nameless” Salomé and her influence upon the people can he have control over the land.
As a playwright Farber’s work is often incredibly transgressive in her fearless retelling of troubling stories. She has written about many disturbing events, from the gang rapes of Delhi (a play performed by the victims), to the horrors of apartheid. Only last year her two acclaimed plays, Les Blancs and the incredibly popular The Crucible at the Old Vic, drew mass critical acclaim which goes some way towards explaining the sense of disappointment across the media towards this new production of Salomé: the bar has been highly set. Salomé is evocative of Molora, Farber’s wonderful reimagining of The Oresteia Trilogy, set amongst the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions at the end of Apartheid. Like her “Women of Song” a continual musical accompaniment comes in the form of the Ngqoko Cultural Group who perform traditional Xhosa drones which chill audiences down to the bone. Sand is also used widely in Molora as a means of status with characters forced into the dirt. Farber shows the same cultural sensitivities in Salomé, creating a traditional atmosphere of sound to accompany the visual (often silent) spectacles of the drama. The disappointment comes from the fact that one feels that these interesting ideas have not quite been done justice in the script and production they have become.
As a play Salomé overreaches itself and attempts to conquer too many themes. On paper this should have excelled, especially when considering Farber’s track record, but the pieces of the jigsaw just didn’t quite click. There are some magnificent highs but some equally tremendous lows as motifs become laboured and monotonous. However as a reimagination of a well known myth it is certainly thought provoking and will be like nothing seen on the stage before. Farber has stated that “I would hope that the audience would leave thinking less and feeling more”,  unfortunately the opposite seems to have transpired, but this production certainly leaves a lot on which to dwell.
Salomé is showing at the National Theatre until the 15th of July. For more information and tickets see here.
 https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/may/10/salome-review-yael-farber-olivier-london, https://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/2017/salome-review-at-the-national-theatre-london/