There are few figures in history as controversial as that of Salomé, the young woman who danced for her uncle King Herod, and when offered whatever her heart desired, demanded the head of preacher John the Baptist. It’s a defining moment in biblical history, and our image of her is as the ultimate sexual temptress driven by excess, made immortal in Oscar Wilde’s 1891 play. For her latest work with the National Theatre, captured in the latest of their live cinema broadcast, theatre maker Yaël Farber pulls apart what we know (and don’t know) about this woman, and redefines her as a symbol of feminine power and revolution.
Perhaps the most surprising fact about Salomé is that, in the three Gospels where she is mentioned, she is never referred to by name, the title ‘Salomé’ something imposed on her story centuries later. Apart from the basics, we know very little about her, and Farber uses this vacuum of knowledge as both a provocation and an invitation. Her visually rich production frames itself almost as an act of violent reflection by Nameless (Olwen Fouréré), speaking to us across the ages on her last day on earth. She is narrator and confessor, and guides us through her story as a young woman (Isabella Nefar), a voiceless figure in a world of men. Her country Judea is occupied by the Romans, her faith crippled by politics and bribes, her existence defined by her uncle and possessor Herod (Paul Chahidi). The country hangs on the edge of revolution, one fuelled by the arrival of Iokanaan or John the Baptist (Philip Arditti) whom the Romans try to suppress and prevent from becoming a martyr. Fuelled by fiery rage for the mistreatment of her country, Salomé sees the change to take its fate into her own hands.
Farber takes a story that has always appeared straightforward and not only reexamines it as a powerful tale of revolution but highlights how the story of this woman has forever been defined by the retellings of men and the male perspective. Repositioning Salomé as a revolutionary is a masterstroke and enormously powerful, not only rectifying our understanding of this woman’s place in history but using it to explore the chaos of destabilising and occupying countries, the refugee nightmare and the vile desire of men to consume, conquer and destroy. So many dramaturgical decisions here are bold and breathtaking, from the splitting of Salomé into two figures (narrator and icon) to how the production embraces the cultural heritage of Judea and its many languages. For example, Iokanaan only speaks in Hebrew, itself a powerful act of defiance against the Romans. Farber assembles a multicultural international cast who move on the many never-ending circles of the multi-revolve stage, battered with sand and water and wind. This is an elemental production, full of rich textures and senses, especially the haunting music sung by Yasmin Levy and Lubana Al Quantar. Farber’s directorial command is absolute, meticulous and enormous, creating a significant and often devastating theatrical experience.
Strangely though, it never quite gels together. It’s also incredibly dense, and while the revisionist take on Salomé is remarkable, there are no moments of lightness within this work. Its enormity is occasionally overwhelming, and the meticulous nature of it means it moves with exactness that can occasionally test your endurance. All of the cast also proclaim their lines endlessly, creating a cacophony of shouting voices that sometime drown out any meaning and become nothing but loud noise. The performances are fine if not overly memorable, though Isabella Nefar is utterly arresting as the almost silent Salomé, and Philip Arditti finds powerful physical and vocal poetry as Iokanaan. If Farber had found more musicality in the volume of her actors, this might have been an easier experience for the audience to enter the impenetrably monumental experience it ends up being.
Repositioning Salomé so-called as a revolutionary is a masterstroke and enormously powerful...
This is also one of those productions that doesn’t end up being served well by the National Theatre Live format. There’s too much going on, too much detail for the camera to capture, and no matter how much coverage you get, a lot more is lost here than would be in a traditional proscenium arc presentation. You also miss the smells of water and sand, the olfactory experience that must have been overwhelming for the audience. We should be thankful for the chance to see this work at all in any capacity in Australia - the scale of it something we rarely see on our stages - but in this case, I suspect a lot is lost in the cinema format.
As a document though, it is an important and vital one for anyone interested in performance or women in history to see. You leave with something shifted; a new perspective on a set of stories we feel we know so well, a reminder that the basis of Christian religion and mythology being firmly rooted in the Middle East, in languages and faces different from what western civilisation has promoted for centuries, and the important place women have within it. Thanks to Farber, Salomé is no longer a figure of excess and temptation, but a powerful and devastating figure of revolution.