Salome at the National Theatre review: Impressive staging just about saves this poorly written Biblical tale

Melissa York
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Isabella Nefar as Salome and Olwen Fouere as Nameless

National Theatre

You don’t remember me, you do not know my name, you came to call me Salome.” The opening soliloquy of this production is a neat encapsulation of how this semi-mythical Biblical figure was forgotten for centuries, but later came to be the subject of poetry, paintings, operas and a play written in French by Oscar Wilde.

In the Bible, she’s simply the nameless step-daughter of King Herod, who dances enticingly before him until he offers to grant her any wish. She asks for the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter, yet her motivation for this gory request is mysteriously absent.

In this retelling by Yael Farber, the director behind last year’s excellent race and identity epic Les Blancs, Salome’s call for his execution is a calculated political checkmate, condoned by the Baptist, whose martyrdom sparks an uprising against the Roman occupation of Jerusalem.

Colonialism looms large in this oblique landscape, which is literally obscured by the sheer amount of sand flying about; if waterfalls of sand aren’t pouring from the ceiling, characters are bathing in it.

This, combined with haunting Hebrew laments sung live by Syria’s first opera singer and a classical Israeli artist, effectively transport the audience to a darker, dirtier age, but the pace lingers and the script is often poor. Atmospheric direction constantly overcompensates for sub-par writing littered with clunky metaphors.

Salome is told over and over again that she’s “like an army with banners”, which manages to sound as non-threatening as it does nonsensical, while Herod’s pick-up lines – “the joints of your thighs are like jewels” – are laughable. Salome’s dance, in which she doesn’t just take control of her destiny but the entire set, is well executed but comes about 45 minutes later than our attention allows.

Impressive staging just about saves this feminist tale, but it’s far from a definitive retelling for a new generation.

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