Review: Salome by The National Theatre

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Salomé. A nameless dancer, wife to Herod the Great, shunned as a symbol of female seduction, and defamed in literature as a vengeful harpy directly responsible for the death of John the Baptist.

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Director Yaël Farber seeks to reclaim the myth and rid it of misogyny in this new production of the classic myth. This new play reframes Salomé as a victim of patriarchal persecution and abuse, whose actions are driven by pain and whose destruction of John the Baptist was for the sake of Jerusalem, inciting a revolution that would free them from the clutches of Rome.

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Set in an ancient desert land, Yaël Farber infuses the production with an incredible sense of ritual. When the aged Nameless appears (Olwen Fouere, herself having performed a previous incarnation of Salomé), she acts as narrator, speaking as both an aged Salomé and as a voice for persecuted, silent womankind suffering years of abuse and suppression. There’s plenty of deliberate symbolism here, from the Last Supper like tableaux, to Iokanaan’s Jesus-like appearance, and imbues the play with religious significance.

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Susan Hilferty’s design is epic, with streams of sand pouring down from the ceiling, dramatized by Tim Lutkin’s lighting that moves from cold blue to arid yellow. Beyond the set,  Adam Cork’s Arabic inspired music and ceremonial songs performed by an impressive Yasmin Levy elevate the piece’s sanctity, almost sacred with how deliberate and rehearsed the entire process feels. Arranged on the edges of concentric revolving circles spinning counter-clockwise to each other, the cast perform rites that inherently feel linked to the passage of time as the sand falls around them. Midway through, Salomé climbs a tall ladder and ascends heavensward, a hard, divine light from the ceiling. If anything, Salomé boasts incredible, mesmerizing set design that will keep audiences enraptured throughout.

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Salomé feels a lot like Game of Thrones’ Daenerys and Dothrakis, except Salomé herself is a little more worse for the wear. Played by Isabella Nefar, Salomé holds herself with a strength and dignity that transforms the erotic Dance of the Seven Veils from a striptease to a rite of passage, reversing its dirty nature and in fact, making it one of cleansing. Ramzi Choukar’s messianic Iokanaan, or John the Baptist, clothed in a loincloth and not much else preaches in Arabic and foretells the revolution, offering his own head as a sacrifice to fulfill his own prophecies, forceful and angered in his delivery, and genuine in his moment of connection with Salomé, becoming not a victim but an active, self-sacrificing agent.

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One gets the feeling that Salomé has been completely reappropriated via the female pen, and through this play, canonized in a new light. Completely void of her previous incarnation of erotica and no more a femme fatale, Salomé is almost pure in her portrayal here, crushed by the skin-crawling rape committed by Herod (Paul Chahidi), who brings the necessary sleaziness to his overwrought lines that objectify her as much as they praise her loins.

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For all its power though, Salomé is a bit of a slow burn, taking its time with its rituals and its storyline. There are times she disappears for a good part of the play to make way for Iokanaans’ scenes or long banter about the relationship between Rome and Jerusalem. It’s easy to lose track of what happens, with narration from Nameless that does more to obfuscate than explain and oftentimes with action so long drawn out and deliberate that one forgets the purpose in the first place. But when it does hit, it hits hard with its powerful visuals, and perhaps that is enough to warrant venturing into this violent land of gods and monsters.

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No more a nasty woman of the past, Salomé is a feast for the eyes as she transforms from a woman scorned to a mistress of storms and vengeful, determined woman. Even if you get lost in the words and narrative, Salomé quickly pulls you back in with its process driven act, graceful yet explosive, atmospheric and epic. Come to this play with a little prior knowledge of the previous versions of the myth, and let its powerful scenes of reclaimed womanhood wash over you and fall under Salomé’s spell, an unsung heroine that’s worthy of your love, no longer a nameless waif of the past.

Photo Credit: Johan Persson
Salomé plays at the National Theatre till 15 July. Tickets available here

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