Director Yael Farber brings a biblical tale to life in the National Theatre’s latest live broadcast. Despite a lack of emotional zeal, Salome is a gloriously aesthetic production. It immerses itself in Middle Eastern culture, making for an atmospheric opening. It harbours a mystical quality that enhances the special effects and technical features. It is very heavily choreographed in places, obviously so at times that it makes it feel overly dramatic. This could be because Faber’s interpretation seems a bit untidy, a bit confusing. Nevertheless, it manages to present its central theme of occupation well. There are some strong performances from the cast which help it on its way. Ultimately though, it all seems a bit average.
The story of Salome is a short one. We find it in three of the Gospels. Here, she is named simply as Herodias’ daughter. She dances for her stepfather Herod and his guests, “pleasing” them so much that he offers to grant her any request. On asking her mother, she returns to ask for the head of John the Baptist. Despite Herod’s silent protestations, he agrees. We are promised that Farber’s production is this tale ‘retold…, but never like this’. It is a fairly accurate assessment of the South African director’s interpretation. It both reflects and veers away from its original source. For example, Salome’s nameless status is reflected in the play, yet her mother is omitted from the cast. Farber subverts the biblical story, moulding it into a centrally important narrative that makes this woman a pivotal agent of change.
Farber’s intentions work to an extent. The theme of occupation is a powerful one. This is particularly true of the relationship between Herod (Paul Chahidi) and Salome (Isabella Nefar). Here, we find perhaps the most disturbing scenes of the play. Herod seeks to “occupy” Salome’s body in a sexually violent and emotionally abusive way. It is much more jarring than the more conventional sense of occupation also portrayed here. We are submerged into first century Judea: the hauntingly beautiful tones of traditional Arabic song; the sand pouring across the backdrop; the stone-carved floor; and the costumed spectacle of Arabic dress and Roman armour. Farber places her cast of Roman officials and religious leaders at the centre of a turntable stage. Salome, for the most part, circulates silently around them. It is a stark contrast. But it serves a telling purpose. In this male-dominated world, it is the silent female who incites a dramatic set of events.
Unfortunately, this production does not illicit a great deal of emotional response, even at its inciting finale. Despite its attempts to produce a dramatic story arc, the forced and overdrawn choreography finds it wanting. More specifically, it appears as if it is trying to imitate a biblical epic. In short, it seems to be trying a bit too hard. Therefore, when the play reaches its intended melodramatic climax, it sounds more like white noise than a dramatic statement requiring deep emotional engagement. This is taking nothing away from the cast, however, who deliver some strong performances, Nefar and Ramzi Choukair (John the Baptist) in particular. It is the script, in this instance, that seems to let them down. Farber’s interpretation seems a bit loose, slightly unfinished. The omission of Herodias, the original instigator of John the Baptist’s beheading, leaves a particular problem: what is Salome’s reasoning for this request without her? In light of John’s kindness towards Salome in her cleansing especially, I was left confused and asking myself, why?
Confusion seems to have been the wider audience reaction too. As I left the screening, everyone seemed to be rather puzzled as to what they had just witnessed. Designer Susan Hilferty has created a beautiful set. The mystical quality of this production still manages to stir up some level of intrigue. Sadly, it lacks an emotionally compelling narrative. As a result, Salome is a physical spectacle, but not an immersive experience.