Review: Salomé (Olivier Theatre)
Updated: Jun 10, 2022
A tale of a powerful young woman, a mysterious dance, a severed head and an unforgivable crime….or was it? That seems to be the premise of Yael Farber’s take on “Salomé”, a biblical tale of a young woman who has thus far been represented as a promiscuous villain, now receiving a more generous portrayal. It’s a popular play, as Oscar Wilde’s play of the story is being put on by the RSC this summer. I, as a totally ignorant atheist, was interested to see how her tale would be illustrated, and whether it would alienate me as an audience member (though granted I may not be the target audience), or whether the sheer storytelling would enthral me on its own merit, as I have often found biblical tales do.
What is immediately apparent is that this is entirely Farber’s baby. She has come up with an entirely new take on the story, written a script, and directed every little detail of the production to the nth degree. Her concept has some really interesting ideas. The focus is heavily placed on the setting of an occupied dessert, reflecting current issues over refugees and integration. There is also an idea of false history, written by men in power to disguise the truth of what happened and why Salomé acted as she did. The trouble with these themes is that Farber and everyone on stage know just how clever these concepts are. They seem to feel a sense of importance to the production, but because they are so aware of what they are doing it detracts significantly from the enjoyment of the performance. Farber’s direction is rather overwrought to say the least, as she seems too focused on the symbolic significance of the staging and the acting that overall it lacks any naturalism or believability. In a scene set at a banquet (not so subtly dressed as the last supper), none of the actors look at each other. At all. No doubt this is meant to have some kind of symbolic significance, but I found I was distracted by how unnatural and strange it looked.
The script follows a similar trend. I reference the script as I sincerely doubt any other director would even think of going near it, not because it is necessarily bad but because it is so heavy, so relentless, so symbolic that I don’t think anyone would dare to attempt it. In that way, I have to admire its ambition. Beyond that, it is just very draining. Every single line is poetic and metaphoric. Sometimes the script is wonderful, for example when two guards are arguing over the occupation of their nation and we are treated to the line “Rome by any other name would taste as bitter”, and the exchange reflects very relevant issues without being preachy. Immediately following this is a rape scene involving Salomé and her uncle Herod (which narratively speaking is an error in itself), in which we are subject to lines such as “eat that I can watch you swallow”. The worst offender is a scene in which John the Baptist and Salomé have a heart to heart. There wasn’t a single line that made an ounce of sense, including such lines as “I am a wall, and my breasts are like towers”.
There is no dip or contrast in the importance of the scene or the burdensomeness of the script, so it is impossible to decipher what is important and what is not. More importantly, the audience is kept at the same level of tension over the entire run time. The lacklustre performances did not help. Isabella Nefar was strong as Salomé but not irreplaceable. Paul Chahidi as Herod overacted every line, though it is difficult to tell whether this is his doing or Farber’s. But the thing I thought as I was watching the performance was; I could really like this. I could grow to love its detail, its symbolism, the characterisation that was not immediately apparent. I could get super nerdy and discover all the nuances of Farber’s work. To get there, I would watch it five, maybe six times. There is so much to admire. The visuals are simply stunning, such as when Salomé climbs a ladder ascending into a bright white light, and in the scene where she clutches massive curtains and dances with them majestically. But, that is all I could gain from it on first viewing. The work is good. Very good. However, I found it totally unenjoyable, and seeing as the impermanence of theatre is one of its greatest virtues one shouldn’t have to watch it multiple times to enjoy it. The complexity of the language, visual metaphors, and performances makes it the most exclusive piece of theatre I have ever seen. And yet, I think Farber should be proud. She has done what she set out to do. Three stars.
Whispers in the crowd: “A strange mix of boredom and fascination. I mean complete boredom but it was compelling, I could not stop looking. Three stars.”