The vast space of the Olivier stage is stripped almost bare, with a huge saucer of lights floating high above. On the ground, there is the slight movement of a gently inflating polythene sheet. Beneath it there appears to be a motionless body. A haunting lament begins as two veiled singers slowly emerge from the shadows and begin to circle the stage. As the light falls on a shock of white hair we see an old woman and she speaks, ‘It begins at the end, for I am the first and the last…’
Yael Farber’s new production designed by Susan Hilerty is an extraordinary circular and coherent whole, more like an act of meditation than a play. Yet it’s also intensely theatrical and seriously political. Farber sets out to re-imagine the mythic female figure of Salome, written into history by men as a death obsessed seductress. Here she has an entirely convincing personal and political motive for asking her lascivious step-father, Herod for John the Baptists head. Instead of climaxing with Salome’s infamous dance, the whole play is a like a dance, instead of the gruesome shock of the severed head, shocking violence bleeds throughout the hour and forty minutes.
Set in Judea, the cast are in ‘traditional’ biblical dress, the colonising Romans in armour, women veiled and John the Baptist/Iokanaan (Ramzi Choukair) who speaks only in Hebrew is naked, bar loin-cloth. Lloyd Hutchingson’s Pilate is infuriated by the ‘emotionality of the Jews’ and desperately missing home, determined to build an aqueduct in the Desert. Unctuous Herod (Paul Chahidi) has fallen for his step-daughter Salome (Isabella Nefar), baffled and then enraged by her denial of his advances.
Whilst remaining clearly located in biblical history, it’s made explicit that Salome is representative of all silenced women brutalised by patriarchal oppression. Rape is both a metaphor for colonial oppression and a reality for the young girl at the centre of the narrative. ‘The city ruptures like a wound on the body’ says Nameless our wise, white haired female narrator. Salome herself is silent for a large part of the play but when she speaks, she erupts, making her horrifying request all the more convincing. Women have no voice in this patriarchy but the controller of this narrative is ‘Nameless’ played by Olwen Fouere. Her words are poetic, spoken with slow deliberation throughout. For and hour and forty minutes there is no let up, moments of stunning visual beauty providing some relief.
There is little to laugh about, though much to admire in Farber’s production. Judea is never far from the world we know, with the on-going reality of ravaged countries and violence against women - whether or not we are lucky enough to keep it at a safe distance.
Salome will be broadcast live to cinemas around the UK and Internationally on 22nd June. In the UK alone, it currently broadcasts to 700 cinemas. For information visit ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk
Be the first to see our exclusive Theatre News cast interviews by subscribing to our brand new Youtube channel
as well as our Twitter