National Theatre, 5th July 2017
Salome, much like Common also currently residing on the Olivier stage, has been given a bit of a pasting by the criterati. Not utterly trashed but its obvious flaws have been highlighted. And much like Common I have to say I think the criticism is a little misplaced (Common at the National Theatre review ***.
The text is ponderous, with a strange mix of bombastic Biblicality, overwrought imagery and sometimes vague, paradoxical didacticism but the themes are still revealed and once you adjust to the style and pacing it exerts a sort of spell. Yael Farber has directed some cracking theatre, not least the NT’s Les Blancs on this very stage last year. She is not afraid of bashing you over the head with the messages she whats to convey and is the antithesis of theatrical reserve. Having set out to direct Wilde’s version of the Salome “story” she found that the truth of that “story” had been revised, reviled and distorted at the hands of the unholy trinity of history, religion and patriarchy. So, following a bout of impressive scholarship, she set out to write her own version.
Nameless (our Salome in her dotage), played with sonorous venom by Olwen Fouere, acts as our “narrator” as we are introduced to Judea c. AD 26. Cue flashback. Pontius Pilate is whinging about getting the gig here, the Pharisees are getting all orthodox and hanging on to their cash. Herod (there were a few of them) is swanning about as vassals do and getting all lathered up about his niece who may be Salome. John the Baptist pitches up, berating everyone in Aramaic (I assume) for being insufficiently hairshirt. Authorities decide to lock him up rather than crucify to stop the hoi-polloi turning nasty. Dance, head, plate, end. But the crafty Salome/Nameless and John B have outwitted the Roman occupier for martyrdom and revolt are the consequence.
Ms Farber, through the shouty stuff, shows that the whole Salome myth was laid on top in subsequent centuries and gives a flavour of these fervent times when monotheistic religions was developing. And it looks and sounds spectacular courtesy of Susan Hilferty and Adam Cork respectively. Renaissance art comes to life. I know that set, sound, movement. lighting, costume and other visual flummery is not enough on its own to justify a trip to the theatre but this comes mighty close. The singing of Yasmin Levy and Lubana Al Quntar was spell-binding. And the multi- nationality cast largely gives a full-throated bash at delivering even the most pretentious twaddle. In particular I was taken with Lloyd Hutchinson’s Pilate, the aforementioned Olwen Fouere, and especially Ramzi Choukair’s Iokanaan (the Baptist to you and me).
So yes it is all a bit elliptical, it is trying too hard to be good for you and the text is undeniably orotund (I bloody love that word) but it has a hazy, mystical quality which I think suits the “action” such as it is. Myth and ritual are central to any conception of art and the ideas here do eventually penetrate the fog, particularly the tragedy of occupation and the masculinisation of history through the metaphor of the female body. So I say good on ya, Yael and don’t let the bastards grind you down.