Here is more evidence that my viewing choices are not mainstream… Above is the “crowd” just before the same-day “as live” broadcast of Yaël Farber’s Salomé, part of the National Theatre Live project. In fact several of the people who did show up to see it walked out before it was over and I can’t say I blame them.
A quick review before going into detail… I found the play overly theatrical, using narration instead of dialogue for quite a bit of it. There were a lot of things that were distracting to the viewer, with not a lot a lot of substance to sustain interest, despite good intentions. On the other hand, the singing was beautiful and haunting. The expressiveness of the faces of Isabella Nefar (Salomé so-called) and Paul Chahidi (Herod, Client King) in conveying strong emotion was very well done. However, Salomé would definitely not be a play I would see a second time. Details follow and contain spoilers.
The production opens with Farber’s signature billowing fog, which is present throughout, as are the out-of-scene actors moving slowly around the stage. This not being a 4-D cinema, we thankfully couldn’t smell the incense which I understand was present in the theatre. The stage set is quite minimalist, as are most of the costumes, allowing the audience to focus on the actors. (Having the guards carry machine guns is a rather a strange and distracting choice, though.) A wonderful addition to the atmosphere is the unique background vocalizing of the Women of Song, Yasmin Levy from Jerusalem and Ubana Al Quntar from Syria. The cast is in fact purposely multicultural and multi-lingual, and many hail from countries that have experienced occupation and colonization.
Farber retells the story of Salomé as that of a woman pushed to stand up for sovereignty of her body and her country, by demanding the head of John the Baptist and so igniting the populous and changing history. Like previous versions of this story, though, it is still historical fiction even if slanted towards imagining a strong politically astute young woman, rather than the temptress she is usually written as. Although the former is Farber’s goal, what primarily comes across is a young woman sexually used/abused by her stepfather/uncle and various occupiers of her country, who finally snaps and takes revenge. I’m not sure that there is any evidence that this story is any more true than the others.
The play is narrated by Salomé as an older woman (ghost?) played by Olwen Fouéré. I found her delivery overly theatrical, but I think that is probably deliberate and intended to give a more classical feel to the play. I think the play would actually be more compelling, though, if we could see and listen to the dialogue as the drama unfolds. That being said, Isabella Nefar (Salomé so-called) conveys so much anguish through her facial expressions alone that dialogue is almost unnecessary. The other standout performer is Paul Chahidi as Herod, Client King. There is no doubt that he covets his stepdaughter/niece, and his lecherous gazes are disturbing in their realism.
The dialogue is partly in English and partly in Hebrew (I assume) with subtitles on the screen. (I’m curious how they did the subtitles in the actual theatre, so please let me know if you saw it live.) It’s an interesting idea to emphasize difference in peoples through use of diverse languages, but I personally find it distracting. The choice to have the oppressors be the ones to speak English, rather having the oppressed do so, is presumably intended to make the audience identify as and contemplate being historical oppressors.
There really isn’t enough action or dialogue to make the play something you want to see through to the end, which is likely why several people walked out before the broadcast was over. Ramzi Choukair as John the Baptist is very good, but is mostly just acting an out-of-control zealot rather than a fully formed character (since he is speaking a language we don’t understand and speaking at people rather than with them). And I found him being naked but for a loin cloth to be somewhat distracting (Is he cold? How does he keep that thing on? etc.). As is the nakedness of Salomé (in the darkness so it is only presumed) just before she dresses for the dance.
The dance itself is not what I expected, given that she seems to be holding floor-to-ceiling curtains (seen below), rather than veils, and writhing more than dancing. The whole scene is a bit of a let down and doesn’t seem to be worth waiting for. I did, however, really like that the dinner at which she danced became a tableau reminiscent of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Very cool. And everyone there was speaking their same refrains used throughout the play over top of each other, creating an interesting cacophony.
Farber seems to have a thing with her actors washing in basins or troughs, sometimes with water and sometimes with sand. The former was of course necessary for John the Baptist. The latter was particularly effective when Salomé was cleansing herself after being abused.
While there are some worthwhile aspects of the play, I think there are problems structurally and with the script. And what I didn’t like about the acting and the pretentious theatricality were, I suppose, related to the directing. To me, this doesn’t bode well for Oedipus to Antigone.
If you want to check out Salomé for yourself, there will be an encore broadcast at selected cinemas on July 15. The National Theatre also has a “Backstage” app with in-app purchases. I bought the Salomé digital programme for $3.99. It’s put together well, with background information on the history and the source material, as well as videos, photos and cast information.
Next Theatre at the Movies for me will be The Crucible on July 2.