Unpacking and reimagining the complexities of Salome through a modern lens.
Princess of Judea, villainous exotic dancer, or vengeful femme fatale? The historical figure of Salome’s claim to fame lies in her request to see the head of John the Baptist as reward for performing a dance for her step-father. But one thing that is never made clear is her intentions for doing so, with some claiming it to be a request from her parents, or in Oscar Wilde’s 1892 interpretation, a result of revenge after her romantic advances are spurned by John.
Whoever she is, Salome’s story contains rich material to mine and muse upon, and in Ong Keng Sen’s project SALOME, the esteemed director reimagines her for the modern age, as a means of unpacking, recontextualising and perhaps, better understanding this mysterious woman and the ways she continues to exist in new forms today.
Playing as part of the 2022 Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), project SALOME is in essence, a documentary about the complexities of Salome, portrayed across three distinct ‘versions’ of her. The first is a live stage performance, starring Janice Koh as the head of Salome, her words based off Wilde’s play. The second is a documentary Syrian refugee Michael(a) Daoud, as they recount their a perilous journey to seek asylum in the European Union. The last of these is an Instagram account belonging to fictitious tennis star Seah Loh Mei (also Janice Koh), and the unveiling of a clandestine affair.
Salome herself has never been considered a major character in the literary canon, and for most audience members coming to the show, their understanding of her is a blank slate upon which they will be forming their first impressions of, much like the blank white screen the performance begins with. And as far as first impressions go, project SALOME makes it clear right from the start exactly the kind of person Salome was remembered as. In the live performance, from the moment she is revealed, Janice Koh, as the head of Salome magnified on the screen, is presented as a woman of stature and power, singing of her own beauty and adorned with a magnificent golden headpiece.
Over the course of the performance, Janice recites choice lines from Wilde’s play, focusing on the power and almost enchanting, erotic force Salome has over all who witness her. It is impossible to look away from the screen, as Janice gives it her all in her performance, bringing her emotions to the fore with impeccably rehearsed facial expressions, every twitch and movement of her eyes beautifully expressed and every gaze a window to her inner thoughts and a deeper story. Commanding in tone, Janice decares herself ‘Salome, Princess of Judea’, emphasising her unwavering sense of identity and authority, before the visuals begin to break her image into a multi-coloured kaleidoscope view. Her voice hypnotic and poetic, it feels as if we are put into a trance as we continue to look into her eyes, all the emotions, anguish and fear coming out at once.
In between scenes, we segue into the documentary segment of the performance, featuring Syrian refugee Michael(a) Daoud, with Keng Sen and the rest of the documentary team in Berlin. From the moment they are introduced, Daoud is poised as a person of culture and class, impeccably dressed with an Egyptian scarf and Roman coat, and parallels the majesty exuded by Janice’s version of Salome. Walking about Keng Sen’s apartment, Daoud is confident as they sweep out to the balcony, and even catcalls some boys passing in the street. Things are peaceful and full of joy as Keng Sen and Daoud share a moment putting on makeup together, while enjoying coffee and mandarin oranges. It feels as if Daoud has finally found peace and friendship, particularly in meeting the other members of the creative team, engaging in conversation and preparing for a feast.
But things haven’t always been this easy for Daoud, as they recall the immense pain that preceded their arrival in Europe. From the loneliness of pandemic lockdowns to being disowned by their parents for being gay, Daoud’s life feels like one tumultuous event after another. Yet it is this same pain and suffering that leads to the birth of their drag persona – Bolbola. Existing in the intersections of masculinity and femininity, bearded and/or in makeup, there is a newfound strength and confidence that exists in this alter ego. As a representative of Salome, Daoud could be said to showcase the vulnerable side of her, and representing the phoenix-like act of transformation women like Salome go through that morphs pain into power.
Such power is represented by the ritual Daoud prepares, laying out photos as if setting up an altar. Lighting up some coal and frankincense, a bookshelf opening up to becomes a candlelit altar, Daoud tells the stories behind each photo, harrowing memories of the sex work, or ‘body trading’ she was forced to do in Istanbul to raise the seven thousand or so Euros needed to flee. Candles lit around the bathtub, Daoud steps in naked, completely vulnerable and raw as they explain how they felt a loss of self after subjecting themselves to the sex trade, and with the untold horrors of the industry, even developed a sense of phallophobia.
Yet, in acknowledging the intense pain of the past, they also understand that it is a part of who they are, and in embracing it, forges a new identity, alongside the Bolbola persona. As they put out each candle, one at a time, darkness engulfs them, as if symbolically snuffing out a part of their life they no longer wish to go back to, saying goodbye to the anguish, and turning instead towards unlocking the mystery of love. Just as Daoud seems consumed by the darkness, we too fear our own insignificance in the face of all the suffering and tribulations we encounter, each night going to sleep but always wondering if we might wake up to the same dread in the pit of our stomach in the morning. But watching Daoud, we feel hope – even if forces attempt to reduce them to a mere statistic, a single number, and just another refugee being smuggled across the borders, there is no denying that through it all, they’ve somehow found the resilience and tenacity within to carry on.
At the performance’s climax, both performance and documentary converge with a portrayal of Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils, which historically, was used as a bargaining chip to ask Herod, her stepfather and ruler of Judea, for the head of John the Baptist. In Janice’s portrayal, she now embodies both Salome and Tetrarch Herod, switching roles each time she looks to the left of right. The quick and complete change in character requires immense skill, and shows off Janice’s degree of poise and professionalism. As she is asked to perform the dance, the lights come on, blindingly white, the air thinning out and suffocating as she performs the dance, as if cursed, or subject to a fate she does not want.
Paralleling Janice’s performance in the final segment of the documentary, Daoud appears in leather, and begins to move, performing a raunchy, sweaty, no-holds barred dance to rave music. They are completely in their element as they lose themselves in the moment. In the next scene, Daoud channels Salome, and holds a disembodied sculpture of Bolbola’s head, as they walk into a dark abyss. They look at the head in their hands, contemplating the person they’ve become, and whether they want to continue having Bolbola as a part of their personality, which, along with representing survival, also holds with it all the pain and suffering of the perilous journey to the EU. They begin to chant, a form of meditation to make clear their mind, as they continue to boldly walk into the unknown, head still proudly in hand. A speck of light can be seen at the end of the path, perhaps a bright future ahead once the journey is over, one we hope we see for ourselves on the road ahead as well.
The performance ends on a somber note, as the screen now projects Janice as Seah Loh Mei, from the Instagram account. Initially posting nationalistic, pedestrian photos captioned with joy at representing #TeamSingapore or mundane training sessions at the gym suddenly give way to text on a black background, a series of disturbing confessions that reveals a sordid affair with the fictitious ‘Minister John Yeoh’. Referencing the original Salome story, John is representative of both John the Baptist, and Tetrarch Herod, as the accusation against John forces him into a confession and essentially destroying his political career. Seah Loh Mei is a force of revenge against those that have wronged her, as we hear Janice speaking Wilde’s words – “Ah! I have kissed thy mouth, Iokanaan, I have kissed thy mouth. There was a bitter taste on thy lips. Was it the taste of blood?” Blood has been shed in the wake of ‘love’, and Seah’s rage and fury placated with justice via social media.
In elevating Daoud’s story for film and theatre, and paralleling them to the Salome, project SALOME becomes a ritualistic act that champions the idea that anyone and everyone can embark on a personal project, to use literature and history as a jumping point to begin unpacking one’s own myriad traumas and aspects of our identity, and learn to make peace with them. Through these three versions of Salome, Ong Keng Sen has crafted a kaleidoscopic view of the princess of Judea, splitting her like light across a prism. In each of these forms, we are introduced to a different facet of Salome – the royal, regal princess locked into her position and subject to her stepfather’s wishes; the damsel in distress who has suffered unspeakable, unspoken pain, and survives through sheer tenacity and the creation of new identities over and over; and the vengeful femme fatale, who exacts punishment through the wrath of the social media mob.
These views of Salome allow us to understand her as a complex creature that cannot be simply understood by a single story or interpretation, and in so doing, acknowledge that we too are similarly complex beings capable of love, suffering, and wrath. The rituals the ‘Salomes’ choose to participate in – the candles, the rave, or even the social media posts, all things she turns to when confronting her past, are tools for acknowledging her fragmented sense of self, and putting it all together again, emerging stronger, better, and more fully realised than ever before. And for us in the audience, we see her, acknowledge this complexity to her character, and recognise in her a reflection of ourselves, with our own trials and tribulations to overcome, using our own rituals and methods to cope with the pain, in the hopes that we find the ways and means to heal.
Photos Courtesy of Arts House Limited. Images taken by Debbie Y.
project SALOME ran from 27th to 28th May 2022 at Victoria Theatre as part of the 2022 Singapore International Festival of Arts. More information available here
SIFA 2022 runs from 20th May to 5th June 2022. Tickets and more information available from sifa.sg.