I have only myself to blame for the fact that I ended up sitting through Salome last night. I visited the NT website three times and decided it was not for me, before thinking “Oh, go on then…” For this, I am a fool.
Salome, in case the reference escapes you, is a Biblical tale. Salome, the favoured niece and stepdaughter of King Herod, causes the execution of John the Baptist by requesting his head on a platter as a reward for some particularly fine dancing. Author and director Yaël Farber has taken this as a cue to produce something that is part political allegory, part interpretive dance, part performance art and all nonsense.
We are introduced to two Salomes. The narrator, old Salome, has been imprisoned under the temple. Young Salome doesn’t speak for most of the play, she just watches. Old Salome is at great pains for us to know that she wasn’t just a princess and the cause of John the Baptist’s ruin, she was a revolutionary in an occupied territory, and her story has been suppressed. John the Baptist wears nothing but some very tight underwear and speaks only in Hebrew, while the rest of the cast speak English. The subtitles for his lines are sometimes obscured by a giant ladder, which, depending on your interpretation, is either headed down to the dungeons or up to heaven. Sometimes it disappears and becomes a table, which is all well and good at a small theatre with a tight budget, but at the National it’s just indulgent. Jesus is a man in a loincloth who does interpretive dance and every now and then utters garbled pronouncements – a bit like the sort of ‘preachers’ you see outside Aldi on a Sunday afternoon.
In Farber’s interpretation, Salome is a revolutionary. Sexually abused by her uncle (Paul Chahidi – the high point of the show, more of him, please) she feels an affinity with the outsider John, and finds comfort in his teachings. John baptises her as one of his disciples and her decision to dance and to ask Herod for his head are all part of her plan to ensure he is martyred and remembered forever instead of kept forcibly alive in obscurity by Herod’s guards.
Farber seems to be trying to give a female perspective to the male-dominated stories from the Bible. And yet, there is a heavy dose of male gaze about this production. John baptises all his disciples fully clothed, except for Salome, who must first do a striptease and then submit to a sensual bath. From this point onwards, she frolics in an airy, transparent shift, frequently revealing her breasts. Breasts are lovely, but this seems a little unnecessary, to say the least. And somewhat unlikely behaviour for a character who gets raped about five times in 90 minutes. Her famous ‘dance’ consists mainly of rubbing her nipples and gurning. It feels like titillation, rather than appropriate nudity, and I certainly wouldn’t offer her anything unto half of all my kingdom for it.
The political allegory is strong in this one. The word occupation comes up a lot, often spoken a bit louder than the rest of the dialogue for the benefit of the dim ones at the back. In case there is any lingering doubt whatsoever with regard to the parallel being drawn here, Farber ensures that at one point the Hebrew soldiers arrive on stage armed with guns, adopt poses familiar from news footage, and talk about occupation and possession of land. HAVE YOU GOT IT YET?
The show is littered with the ridiculous. During one of the sexual abuse scenes, Herod gropes Salome while telling her that “Your saliva is the special sauce of my life” – possibly the worst line I have ever heard uttered in the Olivier and something that even the most negligent porn director would probably strike from a low-budget script.
Salome’s big draw is meant to be the stage direction, but I found it a bit crowded. There’s a lot going on. Any players who aren’t centre stage get involved in the interpretive dance, fanny about with drapes, or stand on a carousel and spin around the action. Every now and then they all gather around a table and mimic The Last Supper. It feels heavy handed and worthy – like those Eurovision songs that tell of the beauty and independence of some minor beleaguered state in an attempt to distract their more fortunate neighbours from the joys of glitter and lurex.
Fifteen minutes in, I’d had enough of heavily declaimed poetry, floating tablecloths and interpretive dance and was longing for the interval and blessed escape. Except that like most theatrical abominations these days, Salome has not interval. Of course not. Because then its victims might leave before the ordeal was quite done. I was trapped in the Olivier for a further 90 minutes. I knew how Salome felt in her dungeon, I can tell you.
It’s possible, of course, that this was a wonderful performance and I am merely more of an Old Testament Philistine than a New Testament revolutionary. The woman to my right wept when it really got going, and I think she was genuinely moved rather than bitterly regretful. However, take my experience as a warning, and do not buy a ticket to this show unless you can get an aisle seat.