Despite her fame in opera, plays and painting across the millennia, surprisingly little is known about Salomé. She is nameless in the Biblical account of the beheading of John the Baptist and it is only as a result of Roman-Jewish historian Josephus that this woman, who demanded John the Baptist’s head on a platter, is known as Salomé.
Treachery, cruel wantonness and lascivious sexuality have come to define her. Oscar Wilde’s 1893 play sees Salomé deep with desire for John the Baptist – “in the whole world there was nothing so red as thy mouth” she moans to the dead man’s head – whilst Strauss’ opera only emphasises Salomé’s aggressive lust through its searing music. Yael Farber’s interpretation, however, aims to turn these portrayals on their head, instead placing Salomé at the centre of the story as a woman both oppressed and political.
In Farber’s play, Salomé’s request for John’s head is not one of sexual vengeance, but a deeply political act. By making Jokanaan (John the Baptist) a martyr, Salomé hopes to ignite a Jewish uprising against the Roman occupation of Judea. Whilst her body – a metaphor for the land – may be colonised by the Romans and by Herod, her silent political will for revolt cannot be squashed; she exploits her sexuality in the Dance of the Seven Veils and by reclaiming her body she hopes to begin the reconquering of Judea.
The concept is, therefore, new, stimulating and potentially powerful. It does not, however, deliver.
Atmosphere is something Farber is a master of, as was evident in Les Blancs last year, and Salomé once more demonstrates her ability to bring ritual and sombre to the Olivier. The lighting was gloomy, two shrouded women chanted hauntingly in Arabic and the movement was – always – slow. Susan Hilferty’s staging was remarkable. The visuals were strongly cinematic, a series of fantastic stills that were often renaissance in style, and in combination with the traditional costume a sense of antiquity – albeit rather unhuman and unreal – was palpable.
Even the sheets of cascading sand could not, however, stop the one hour 50 minute performance from dragging. The script was baffling, full of conceited profundity and self-aware metaphor. The desperate attempts at lyricism teetered far too close to comedy, compounded by the solemnity with which the lines were delivered, most notably by Olwen Fourere who played ‘Nameless’, an older Salomé. Ramzi Choukair’s Arabic lines were a welcome relief from the English and he played a convincing wild eyed Jokanaan, whilst Paul Chahidi was an uncomfortably lecherous Herod. Salome (a suitably dramatic Isabella Nefar), however, was as unknowable by the end of the play as she was at the start.
The whole affair was decidedly one tonal. There was no change in pace, in atmosphere, and the evening became a jumble of sand, dark lighting, Arabic ululating and intense stares as Salomé pulled her scarf around her. The culmination of the play – the beheading of Jokanaan – failed to shock or resonate, as despite the use of every dramatic trick in the book, what proceeded it had been so intense that it failed to differentiate from all the other, equally as forceful scenes.
An interesting concept which was delivered in a visually spectacular manner, but undeniably let down by a slow and baffling script.