The National’s new play is a bold new interpretation of a biblical story. Salomé has traditionally been seen as a dangerous seducer, a foolish young woman whose pride cost John the Baptist his life. The story goes that King Herod is so entranced by Salomé’s dancing, he promises her anything. Her request? The prophet’s head on a platter.
But in South African director Yael Farber’s version, Salomé becomes an ally of John the Baptist. The prophet yearns to die because he’ll be a martyr, galvanising the oppressed Jewish people to rebel against the Romans occupying Jerusalem. Farber fleshes out the tale, making Salomé a victim of an unscrupulous, lascivious Herod (Paul Chahidi).
Isabella Nefar plays Salomé who is a silent, quaking creature for much of the play. She only finds her voice when she climbs into the cell of Yeshua the Madman (Theo T J Lowe), as the doomed prophet is called here. She strips naked in order to be physically and spiritually cleansed – kudos to Nefar for her boldness, which stays the right side of sensuous. Olwen Fouéré embodies old Salomé, narrating beyond the grave, except she’s called “Nameless” because her pivotal role in Christian history has been written out of the Bible.
Isabella Nefar as Salomé and Olwen Fouéré as Nameless
This is a beautiful, mesmerising production. Much of the action is accompanied by wonderful, haunting singing and stirring percussion. Tableaux unfurl like a dance because every movement on the revolving stage is perfectly choreographed. Designer Susana Hilferty’s design is deceptively simple and uses only simple, elemental props –sand, water. The Dance of the Seven Veils (which Oscar Wilde invented in his version) doesn’t disappoint and is as ecstatic as it is erotic.
Yet despite its lyricism, this production falls a bit flat. Fouéré’s narration is too stagy and the other characters never quite come to life. Farber’s play is a great idea and a feast for the senses but ultimately unsatisfying.
Salomé is at London’s National Theatre until July 15