Salome

Photo credit National Theatre.

The oddest play I ever saw was Fat Girl Gets a Haircut – a 12-part play of short stories, including the titular ‘fat’ girl who slowly and stylistically cuts off her hair to a sonorous guitar solo.

Salome wasn’t as odd as this – but it was close. It had its moments, but was a hard-going play. It has universally bad reviews, and the theatre was the emptiest I’ve ever seen the Olivier to be. Bearing in mind this was a Saturday night, this was significant.

The premise was a re-telling of Salome’s story. Traditionally, she’s the biblical woman who danced before King Herod in the pre-Christ era when John the Baptist was prophetising; she was granted a gift for dancing so well, she asked her mother for advice. Her mother (hating John for his religious fanaticism) instructed her to ask for the head of  John the Baptist. Salome acquiesced, and Herod reluctantly gave the order.

In this retelling, Salome is an abused woman whose act of martyring John is a political symbol which started a revolution in Jerusalem. Raped by her step-father Herod, Salome is an abused girl who finds truth in John’s words, and in ordering his death – galvanises the country to revolt. John is being kept alive against his will, and welcomes death. Trying to dampen the political message this brings, Herod denigrates her act to the whims of an erratic female, and tries to remove her name from history.

It’s certainly an interesting idea, but for me – the execution was lacking.

Text

A common complaint of the text was that it was stilted and turgid – unfortunately, I agreed. It felt a bit when you’re at school and you try to write an assignment in an old-time-y way, sprinkling words around like ‘felicitous’ and ‘jovial’. The text had a self-complacent air to it; it didn’t feel like it was a true representation of how people would speak. This was a problem.

Another, was that there was too little to say – the play suffered from a significant lack of plot. It had opportunities to expand; themes it could explore and nuances it could have fleshed out – but it didn’t. It stuck religiously with Salome, and her abuse, and her baptism into a revolutionary, and her revolutionary action to ask for John the Baptist’s head. There were allusions to other themes – the state of the country, the unhappiness of the people – there was definite potential to make reference to modern-day middle Eastern politics, but it rigidly and determinedly refused to unfurl, to explore the edges of its own narrative. Farber created an interesting character, but she didn’t do anything with it – and the play suffered..

Sensorially stunning

The play was lacking, the production excelled. There were cascades of sand falling from the sky; curtains draping the stage in moody blues and reds – it was all very dramatic, and very effective. There was a particularly thoughtful use of lighting; one image in particular sticks in mind – Salome rising from the prison of John the Baptist in white robes, with the spotlight fixed on her and her ladder being pulled down by rest of the cast. It made for a very arresting tableau, and for me it’s the take-away impression of the play.

The problem was that the whole play felt like a tableau; everything was stylised, everything about Salome was ponderous and stately and intense. It was like they wanted the play to be a series of images, rather than a play of words. There was no shade, just light and dark. No subtly – absolutely none – just dramatic moments and graceful stills. It was lovely, undeniably, but it was the entire play – and made for quite wearied viewing.

The music was as beautiful, as solemn and as harrowing as the set design – it was also just as constant. It was melismatic wailing lamentations; very middle-eastern and lovely. Very mournful too, which fit with the piece. There were two singers on stage, who were incredibly talented. They added significant depth and gravity, but there was only one point in the play when they weren’t singing – and the absence was noticeable. Everything was just too much – it was all drama all the time, it was high intensity and sorrow and pain constantly. No play can handle that, and it added to the general feel that there wasn’t enough substance to make the play work. Instead, it relied on being overwhelming. To its detriment.

Subtlety

The lack of plot and over-crafted set made for a show whose themes hit you over the head with a hammer. There was no subtlety, whatsoever. Everything important was said about six times (Salome doesn’t have a voice, she’s damaged, John the Baptist is politically needed to stay alive, the country is occupied), and everything unimportant at least twice.

Old Salome took on role of narrator, and was on set all the time to interject grave pronouncements on the proceedings. I think that it had the intention of filling in the blanks of the story – but honestly, the story wasn’t complicated in the slightest. In reality, she just voiced the subtext.

My favourite unsubtle moment was when Salome descends to John the Baptist’s prison; for the first time in the play, she speaks – and it’s to him. That’s a big theme, and a big deal – they have a palpable connection and are physically engaged with each other. Old Salome intones, ‘For the first time, I could speak to someone’.

Seriously? Seriously? Was that deeply, deeply necessary?

I think that the play should have trusted the actors more; trusted the dialogue more. I could have done without Old Salome; she added gravitas and narration, but the play had an excess of the first already, and was understandable enough without the second.

In an overdone, obvious play, Old Salome’s character is the crux of the problem.

Salome Purified

This was my favourite moment of the play; when an abused woman became an icon, the ‘mother of the revolution’. Symbolically & stylistically she took off her clothes, to be naked and reborn. John baptised her in the water and she re-clothed in a white gown. There was lighting behind her, she glowed, she was other-wordly. Not woman, she was icon. And when she was reborn, she spoke in a middle eastern language – the language that John the Baptist spoke, the language of God. It was a beautiful moment.

Language

Language was a strong theme – as mentioned above, John the Baptist only spoke in middle eastern tongue. There were subtitles on the back wall; some found it distracting, but I didn’t mind it. I liked that the language choice was used to separate him, and to separate the godly. Once Salome was reborn, she spoke middle eastern, and I liked the symbolism that this implied.

Salome has no voice; the first time she speaks is when she speaks to John the Baptist. Old Salome speaks for her. Part of the whole damaged/broken theme. As discussed before, I would have preferred it if meaning was conveyed through action & movement, rather than Old Salome’s words. The actors were all very skilled, and I think that they could have conveyed enough with their physicality.

Political Ramifications

This is something that irritated me, because it felt that there was so much potential. Salome is the country, the country is Salome – that’s given to us clearly. She’s associated with sand; it falls down over her and the stage, she washes in it, it’s an element of her torture. Salome is raped and conquered by her step-father; in the same way the country is occupied and its citizens abused by the administration. We hear about this mainly though discussions of the political & religious leaders – but we don’t get any details. The play doesn’t have a concrete setting, it doesn’t even have a concrete time. All the characters were in period dress, except that the guards were carrying guns. That was literally the only reference to modern day at all, and it was very jarring.

One of the most interesting parts of the play was when the soldiers guarding John the Baptist were talking about their experiences of life in the country. One was offered amnesty by the ruling class to kill his family, and he did it.

This was the only glimpse of the country’s ordinary citizens; their perspective. Everything else discussed of the country (and, there was a lot) was second-hand – from the religious & political leaders. I wanted this expanded – it was so close to having modern-day relevance, but this wasn’t exploited at all; wasn’t discussed – so incredibly aggravating.

Requesting the Head

In a play full of intense, dramatic moments, this unfortunately felt like one more.

The scene was set in a tableau of The Last Supper; a setting of biblical & political change, a catalyst for revolution. Herod said something portentous, like “The Red Sea is stormy tonight”, and curtains fell suddenly from the ceiling, setting a backdrop to the stage. They were all blue-purple-red hues, mixed together in a moody way to signify turbulence and drama.

Salome is requested to dance, and she takes a number of abstract poses at the front of the stage. It’s striking and lovely, and with the wailing music it feels as though she’s in the midst of some strife, is reaching for some resolution.

Salome walks to the back of the stage, climbs on a chair and grasps the ends of the curtains still hanging from the ceiling; she gathers them all in her hands, and mimes swimming moments. She’s moving the curtains, she’s shaking and rippling them. It’s visually interesting; she’s the eye of a storm.

Herod grants her a boon, that she can ask for anything she wants, and he will give it to her – she asks for the head of John the Baptist.

Still swimming, still in a storm, John is killed on the table where they had dinner. The women lament and Old Salome pours red sand through her hands.

It’s lovely in it’s elements, but with the rest of the play feels overstuffed, stilted. By that point – it’s just too much. I can’t bring myself to care anymore.

This play has serious flaws and I cannot recommend it; it’s aggravatingly close to being intriguing, but it prioritises easy dramatics for real plot development. Honestly, a bit of a shame.

Stray Observations

  • As Salome was sand, John the Baptist was water (naturally). I liked the symbiosis, the point was elegant and not beleaguered.
  • The whole story of Salome is that she danced for the king and asked for the head of John the Baptist in payment. Am I so traditional, so narrow-minded to be sad that we never actually saw her dance?
  • I’ve seen the revolving drum used many time in NT productions; to change sets, to evolve characters, to evoke memories – this was the first time I’ve seen it used badly. Salome was revolving around the stage, pointlessly, for about six cycles whilst the political leaders talked about taxes. I felt sea-sick for her.
  • Mentioned before, but worth a follow up – genuinely incredibly talented singers. Phenomenal voices, and awe-inducing stamina.
  • The evil religious leaders wear red gloves. I’m torn between liking the obvious bloody hands reference, and disliking its lack of subtelty.

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