Review of Salome at the National Theatre adapted and directed by Yaël Farber
The story of Salome is one that has been told through dance, opera, drama, film, poetry and sculpture. As a biblical figure she has assumed legendary status most obviously associated with demanding the head of John the Baptist alongside her erotic dancing which popular culture has later defined as the dance of the seven veils. Yaël Farber's bold attempt to refocus her story for the stage began as an adaptation of Oscar Wilde's play of the same name but upon finding the witty playwright had packed his text with an overriding amount of artistic license she embarked on a more 'radical premise' for the play which brought ancient sources to the forefront, opening up the story to forgotten voices of the past that have become overshadowed by the more attractive mythical qualities.
Rich in atmosphere yet poor in drama is perhaps the best way to describe the resulting creation which will no doubt leave your mouth agape at the impressive visuals which sees cloud of sand cascade onto the Olivier stage against a constant backdrop of authentic sounds and song which underline the otherworldliness collision between the imperial Rome and the occupied Judea. Farber's strength as a director comes from having total control of her audience's senses – from the second you walk into the auditorium you can smell and hear the world that she has created alongside designer Susan Hilferty, yet dramatically it fails to really take off or speak to you on a basic human level.
The problems however are to be found in the text that frequently tips into the boundary of fan-fiction of Biblical epics, if such genre were to exist. Speech is over declamatory and heightened to the point where her actors are forced to over present and fumble over ghastly extended metaphors that for all their colourful language provide next to no drama or connection to the audience. Long and drawn out sentences bounce from one character to the next all at the same pace and tempo meaning that the entire piece glides along at a glacial pace without ever finding its necessary peak which in turn stifles the acting and suffocates any glimmers of human performance.
Too concerned with presenting a different story to the one we're perhaps familiar with the narrative is muddled by 'nameless' women presenting the story in the past and present, often simultaneously. This results in overuse of description and narration – there is hardly any action and even the climax is slowly walked through and pontificated so thoroughly that it fails to shock or even really register. The task of reinventing or reclaiming a popular story is always disrupted by the fact that an audience already know where it is going and for all the broadening out of the themes of occupation and religious martyrdom it all has the effect of simply stalling the inevitable conclusion for the sake of it.
That said, it's a visual treat that's often captivating and mesmerising to watch. The falling sand may have raised my anxiety levels on behalf of stage management responsible for cleaning it up every night but it's used to great effect against a carefully controlled stage picture that maximises visual weight. I ended up wishing it was a dance or movement piece without text as it's easy to get lost in the visual majesty but it's painfully slow and ponderous, never quite finding sufficient drama to push you to consider this familiar story in a different light.
What the Press Said...
"Hamstrung by a terrible text and an over-complex staging."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Yaël Farber’s turgid take on the biblical story leaves some fine actors stranded in the desert."
Susannah Clapp for The Observer
"Worth a look? Yes. A cut above? I won’t stick my neck out on that."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"The production ends up feeling a tad complicit with the suspect kitsch that gave rise to the prejudiced view of the protagonist."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Style prevails over substance in radically reimagined myth."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"Fatally undermined by a turgid script."
Sarah Hemming for The Financial Times