So here we are, another co-production between the National Theatre and Oy Gevalt Productions. They really do make it too easy sometimes...
Here's a little-known fact for you Constant Reader... did you know that the National Theatre seats are light purple because it was Sir Laurence's favourite colour? Well, he would have had a jolly old time last Monday as the Olivier had rows and rows of empty seats so he could have had his fill of it. Of course that is never a sign that the play is at fault, there are countless examples of great plays that were flops on their first time out. SALOMÉ ain't one of them.
The play is written and directed by Yael Farber who is a hot name to drop these days. She's a South African female version of Ivo van Hove; a director who concentrates more on mood and visual effect above all else. She scored big with her Old Vic production of THE CRUCIBLE in 2014 and LES BLANCS at the Olivier last year and I have a vision of Rufus Norris saying "We'd love to give you the Olivier stage again if you can think of anything suitable?" and Farber opening her bag and pulling out her Best Play and Best Director Helen Hayes awards for the Washington DC production of SALOMÉ and saying "Well..." It must have been a thin year for plays in Washington DC last year.
There is no escaping it once you are in... Middle Eastern wailing women erupt every few minutes, the set slowly revolving, a large cast from various ethnicities bellowing out their lines... although twice there was an arresting stage image which was remarkable - the heavy showers of sand that falls from the flies quite early on and Salomé going all Les Misérables and waving huge curtains about to spark a revolution. However the striving to achieve memorable stage images above all else also led to some crashing clangers...
John The Baptist - here called Iokanaan - was tortured by having his head plunged continuously into a large bowl of water but after the nth time I thought "you are only doing that so when his head is yanked up it makes a huge spray of water across the stage" - use the sinks backstage if you want to play with water eh?. Farber also came up with the whizzer idea to having The Baptist speak in Hebrew with his words translated in English on a screen at the back of the stage. Again all well and good, but in a key moment, a light is shone from the top of the backdrop as Salomé climbs down a ladder to Iokanaan's prison cell where he recites passages from the Song Of Songs (allegedly - it could have been the Hebraic translation of WE ARE THE CHEEKY GIRLS for all I know) - either way the light shining in the audience's eyes and the obstruction of the ladder and Salomé made the translation unviewable.
But the ultimate "Oh Do Fuck Off" moment came just after that moment... so Farber wants to reclaim Salomé from the sexual being that patriarchal history has made her... so guess who is the only actor on the stage to strip off for a lengthy 'ritual' bathing? Yep you guessed.. Isabella Nefar as Salomé. Not Ramzi Choukair as Iokanaan who gets to keep his funky loincloth on, but the young Nefar. Now if the actor can keep his loincloth on why can't the actress be covered as well? It's still tits and ass Yael, you obviously need to re-read the lyrics to DANCE 10, LOOKS 3 from A CHORUS LINE.
So yes, there is the crux of the interval-less 90 minutes running time... patriarchal history has passed down that a young girl possibly called Salomé danced for her lascivious step-father Herod Antipas and when he told her she could have whatever her heart desired, she asked for the head of John The Baptist. So Farber rewrites history and has Salomé won over by Iokanaan's revolutionary doctrine - and thank you Owen for explaining this to me - demands his head to provoke his followers into finally rising up against the Roman occupiers of Judea. I bet Iokanaan was a bit pissed off when this was sprung on him. Like, cheers bitch.
But here is what made me do a biblical facepalm... the story handed down to us is that Herodias, Herod's domineering second wife, told her daughter Salomé to make her fateful choice as she knew that her husband did not want to kill The Baptist. So where is this larger-than-life figure in the play? Simple... she is written out, she doesn't exist. Which flies right in the face of Farber's thinking that whoever Salomé was in actuality, once she demands the head of The Baptist she vanishes from the story.
She even goes to great - and dull - lengths to have the young Salomé represented as 'Salomé So-called" and the narrator to be called 'Nameless' but who is in fact the spirit of Salomé, returned from the sandy grave where she was buried alive after her tongue was cut out for becoming a revolutionary (are you still with me?) Her belaboured point being that women have vanished from history and story-telling... yes Yael, like you have ditched Herodias because she does not fit into your Milly Tant cookie cutter as woman as victim. Not wishing to come on all Camille Paglia, but conniving women like Queen Herodias or young women who could drive older men to promise them anything they desired like Salomé are to be championed too.
Apart from Ramzi Choukair as Iokanaan, no other performances made any impression - indeed Paul Chahidi as Herod and Lloyd Hutchinson as Pilate both deserved Iokanaan's biblical water-boarding. Olwen Fouéré as the older Salomé seemed to think she was speaking Beckett's lines. If only.
Susan Hilferty's set - but not the naff costumes - and Tim Lutkin's lighting gave the production what few moments of interest there were. What annoys me most is that such arse-achingly and obvious woolly liberal revisionism like this is taking up space on the main National Theatre stage when major works of the theatrical canon are crying out to be seen.
And yes Owen you are right... Farber's contention that a young girl had a tiny moment in history but has vanished nameless into the sands of time is defeated by what's written on the front on the programme... SALOMÉ. If you have tickets for it I suggest you bring your bucket and spade to make your own entertainment.