I wish I could say that Yael Farber’s Salome gives Oscar Wilde’s intoxicating play and Richard Strauss’ exotic opera some heavyweight competition, but her calamitous feminist approach to the familiar material bludgeons you into a state of catatonia. Simply put, it’s disaster – the worst evening I’ve had at the National since Damned by Despair in 2012.
In her revisionist take, Salome (so-called, as she is never actually named in the New Testament) becomes a kind of spokesperson for all the women, who, through the ages and the blurring of history, have become marginalised victims in a male-oriented society. To Farber, her heroine is something of a revolutionary rather than the seductress and femme fatale of myth and legend. Demanding the head of the zealot Iokanaan (John the Baptist) is no longer an act of vengeance, but a deliberate ruse to martyr him, thus plunging Roman-occupied Judea into a state of revolution. This way Salome will have died making a difference.
Farber’s version is augmented by the inclusion of a second, older Salome known as Nameless, who for the first hour or so doesn’t speak and is meant to symbolise the many voiceless women history has ignored. It’s a point of view worth dramatising, but the clunky dialogue (“Your saliva is the secret source of my life,” or “Between your thighs are secret ravines that will quench my source”) has the effect of taking a crowbar to crush a pea.
Required to speak the unspeakable, the cast declaims the bathetic lines in a manner that reeks of Biblical parody. Full marks to them for keeping a straight face. As Iokanaan, Ramzi Choukair, a Syrian-French actor clad only in a scanty loincloth, delivers his agitating dialogue in Arabic, a translation of which is projected onto an upstage screen. Olwen Fouere as the Nameless Salome and Isabella Nefar as her younger self do yeoman's work attempting to keep their dignity in such trying circumstances, and it is not Nefar’s fault that what passes for Salome’s celebrated dance – here depicted in a few lurching steps as she clings to a curtain – is a non-event. Paul Chadri’s smirking Herod is suitably lecherous, though Lloyd Hutchinson’s Pontius Pilate makes little impression. Not his fault. He’s given nothing to impress with.
On a more positive note, director Farber – whose recent production at the National of Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs was excellent – has, with valuable assistance from designer Susan Hilferty, provided some striking visual images – billowing gossamer fabrics, a backdrop of cascading sand, lots of smoke and an evocative representation of The Last Supper. Tim Lutkin’s lighting – constantly changing from very bright to very dark, manages to supply in mood and atmosphere what the text fails to do. Adam Cork’s persistent background music, which alternates caterwauling with chants and drones, certainly makes its presence felt. So much so that you leave the theatre feeling Faber’s radical reinterpretation would have been better served had she ditched her humourless, unwieldy text and re-conceived the piece as a ballet.
Though it runs only 110 minutes without an intermission, Salome felt far longer than the seven and a half hours I spent at Angels in America.