Salome at the National Theatre
Yael Farber certainly knows how to make the most of the Olivier. Just as she did with Les Blancs last spring, the South African director has magicked a visually stunning production onto the National Theatre’s most intimidating stage. Yet while last time around she was working with Lorraine Hansberry’s searing exploration of race and colonialism, this time the text is Farber’s own ponderous and portentous retelling of the Salome story.
This is the character returned to the history books, not just a nameless dancer with a grisly request, but a “citizen, foreigner and refugee” of an occupied city who becomes the “mother of the revolution”. Well, in theory at least; in practice Farber does little to make Salome more than a mere body, her eventual, inevitable martyring of the Bobby Sands-like John the Baptist lacking the subversive fervour the director is seeking.
Farber doesn’t help herself by having everyone act in such a pompous, self-consciously biblical manner. It’s a toss-up between Lloyd Hutchinson’s shouty Pontius Pilate and Paul Chahidi’s lascivious Herod for who chews the most scenery, though at least the latter manages to be camply creepy as he lusts after his daughter. Olwen Fouéré gives the best performance, her Nameless narrator exuding an insurgent’s zeal. As for Isabella Nefar’s Salome, it takes over an hour for her to utter a single word, Fouere’s older self instead giving a voice to the voiceless. By the time she does speak, it is too late; she becomes one more person trying to make themselves heard, just another set of declarations.
The music also grates. Initially the Women of Song’s wailing is beguiling; it imbues the piece with a sense of melancholic ceremony. By the end, however, the music’s persistence makes one moment indistinguishable from the next, turning the play into an endless smudge of Bible drama.
The production’s one saving grace is that, thanks to Susan Hilferty’s arid set and Tim Lutkin’s lighting, it is a feast for the eyes. The Last Supper-staging of Herod’s birthday celebrations; the sands of time cascading from the back walls; Salome drenched in water and coated in ash. Each an indelible image, wasted on a text that ends up erasing the very character it seeks to restore.
Photo: Johan Persson
Salome is at the National Theatre from 2nd May until 15th July 2017, for further information or to book visit here.