Isabella Nefar lies on stage as Salomé, her legs bent to her chest, her body suffocated by a translucent-white sheet. Accompanying this image, a drone of chimes and bells. This was the first image of a visceral and ritualistic Salomé, written and directed by Yaël Farber and performed at the National Theatre in London.
I must first commend Lubana al Quntar and Yasmin Levy for their exceptional vocals. Not only did their magnificent voices help to initiate and maintain the play's transportation into the Middle East, but they also significantly intensified the drama of the play as well. This paired effectively with the dramatic droning and drumming of music (composed by Adam Cork), and with the use of spoken Hebrew throughout the play (most used by Ramzi Choukair, playing Iokanaan, and translated in large text on a screen at the back of the stage), which both contextualised and catalysed the action.
Similar to the impressive vocals of the Women of Song is the physicality of Theo TJ Lowe playing Yeshua. Watching him skulk, slide, slither and dance around the stage like a mystical, malevolent Arabian merchant was completely mesmerising. Every part of his body locked into place for this role, and this was highly commendable.
This brings me on to the visual elements of this performance which were very gripping, especially in regards to staging. It is always satisfying to see weather on stage. In this play, downpours of rain and sand added an alluring quality whilst effectively communicating Salomé's identity as a sort of totality, a force, a figuration of a nameless entity. What was most interesting, however, was the fragmentation of the narrative, not only in the writing but on stage as well. Having Nameless (Olwen Fouéré) constantly onlooking and sometimes even mirroring the action gave the play a very narrative-based, nostalgic and educative feel, linking us to the biblical aspects of the story. This was even more effective in regards to the rest of the staging. Especially towards the beginning, scenes tended to be scattered around the stage, and combined with a constant rotation of the stage, this gave the play – and plot – a sense of motion, causing the eye to dart across the action frequently whilst further alluding to the rotation of the world and Salome's relation to its progression.
Furthermore, the use of sand added an efficacious texture to the performance,. Completely scattered across the stage, it caused a fine dust to puff and spit from every object and dress. Its most effective uses, however, came from the spilling of Iokanaan's blood which was represented by red sand falling from Nameless's fist, and Salomé's self- cleansing ritual using sand after her body having been sullied by the touch of Herod (Paul Chahidi). These moments were clever and fruitful.
Other moments, however, were perhaps unimaginative. For example, there was a repetitive use of freeze-frames, slow motion and, what I can only describe as, a basic physical theatre (this involved Salomé being pulled by the ensemble from side to side by her arms – I found this very displeasing and corny...and this happened twice). Additionally, forming the majority of the dialogue in the play was a poor use of stichomythia to build a dramatic tension. This was majorly overused and became predictable and over-dramatic towards the latter part of the play.
Along with moments that worked and moments that did not, there were a few moments that almost worked, or, rather, seemed as though they had the potential to. An example of this would be towards the end of the performance where Nefar stands high, holding two of several enormous drapes, representative of the Dead Sea. The notion of her possessing and controlling this sea serves as a very powerful and poignant image; however, I felt that it was executed very poorly. Salomé runs on the spot in an infantile manner, her arms flailing around, causing the drapes to wade through the air. Whilst the movement of the drapes had high visceral as well as sonic qualities, Salomé's movements juxtaposed this greatly and ruined the image for me.
As for characterisation, all performers were good and collectively subscribed to an identical performance style. I felt that their performance would have been more gripping, though, without the overused stichomythia I mentioned earlier. I would like to draw attention to the physical demands of this performance. These include those from simulating drowning, to submitting one's face to a downpour of water and sand, to being completely unclothed on stage. These exertions are commendable and admirable and prove for captivating theatre. These moments were hence points of high interest and awe.
Yaël Farber has made some innovative changes to the original play. And most of all, I commend the refreshing take on the Dance of the Seven Veils which Farber portrays as a delicate and allegorical moment of poignancy, as opposed to how it is usually conveyed: striptease-like and lustful. However, she did claim in an interview with the National Theatre that her interest was "to place her back in the centre of her own story", where she has always been a minor element of other figures' stories. I do not feel this was achieved. I think the fragmented nature of the script, the silence of Salomé herself and the high focus on the ill-intentions of lascivious and belligerent men throughout took away from Salomé quite considerably.
"Visually astounding, but unpolished in places."
Photography property of National Theatre London.
Credit: Johan Persson.