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Review of Yaël Farber’s Salomé – Olivier Theatre

Isabella Nefar in Salomé a new play by Yaël Farber.
Isabella Nefar in Salomé a new play by Yaël Farber. Photo by Johan Persson

Most people who have been brought up in some form of Christian society know certain stories from the bible. However, supposing those stories were not just wrong but in fact virtually the opposite of everything you thought you knew. If it was Adam that tempted Eve with the apple, or Samson tricking Delilah into cutting his hair, or Lot deliberately turning his wife around so she turned into a pillar of salt. Why these biblical musings you may wonder? Well last night, at the National Theatre, I saw Yaël Farber’s version of Salomé and, believe me, that really turned my knowledge of the story on its head.

The story opens with Nameless (Olwen Fouéré) on the day of her death being questioned by Pontius Pilate (Lloyd Hutchinson), prefect of the Roman province of Judaea, who has been summoned back to Rome to explain his methods in putting down a rebellion in his province. He has a simple question for Nameless, why did she ask for the head of John the Baptist? – known to the Romans as Iokanaan (Ramzi Choukair) – at the birthday of her lustful relative Herod (Paul Chahidi). Without answering, Nameless takes the audience back to the events leading to John’s beheading. We see a younger version of Nameless – Salomé so-called (Isabella Nefar) – and get to witness the ‘real’ story. The creepy lust of Herod, puppet king for the Romans. The political maneuvering of the Sanhedrin under Annas (Raad Rawi) and Caiaphus (Philip Arditti) and the final victory of Iokanaan himself.

I did a quick Wikipedia check on Salomé and it’s surprising how obsessed we are with her story. There were over 40 individual references to her including one of the earliest silent movies made in 1910. Of course, for most people, their knowledge of Salomé comes from Oscar Wilde’s 1893 play which not only was the basis of two operas but also created the picture of the scheming femme fatale being manipulated by her mother to bring about the downfall of God’s prophet John the Baptist. In this version, Yaël Farber paints Salomé as a young tragic figure, preyed upon by a very slimy and repellent relative, and abused by all around her. She finds solace with John the Baptist who baptises her and enlists her help. I think the ‘new’ story is quite fascinating and, whilst I can’t vouch for the historical accuracy, it works as a piece of theatre.

Director Yaël Farber has made full use of the stage available in the Olivier to produce a quite striking looking production. With two turntables, water-filled pits and a huge ladder, the action is forever moving across Designer Susan Hilferty’s interesting stage. As you would expect from a production involving John the Baptist, there is a lot of water – pilate even starts off washing his hands (a very recognisable gesture from that character) – and also sand, which is used most effectively and in vast quantities. There is also smoke and I do wonder what the obsession is with smoke. Yes it looks good on the stage and creates a nice effect but then it starts wafting out over the audience, partially blocking the view and setting every asthmatic in the vicinity off into a coughing fit.

Isabella Nefar, Paul Chahidi in Salomé a new play by Yaël Farber. Image by Johan Persson
Isabella Nefar, Paul Chahidi in Salomé a new play by Yaël Farber. Image by Johan Persson

The costumes are pretty authentic for the time of the Roman occupation of Judaea and the lighting by Tim Lutkin is very atmospheric, though If I had been seated near the platform that runs along the centre of the of the aisles, I would have got annoyed at the amount of light being shone on me. My one other gripe with the performance is that Ramzi Choukair speaks all of his lines in a Middle-Eastern tongue which means that the audience, on the whole, has to rely on a projected translation which is at times rather difficult to see.

On the acting, I have to say that both Isabella Nefar and Olwen Fouéré were very impressive in their roles and I have to raise a hand in admiration to Isabella who’s Salomé is treated badly physically by pretty much everyone she encounters. There is a lot of bravery in Isabella’s performance for which she should be lauded.

So, for me, this was a fascinating production. Like many people, I ‘knew’ the story of Salomé and was really stunned that this show came up with such a different take on the events of the lives of Salomé, Herod, John and Pilate. I found the entire thing captured my imagination from when I first sat down and saw the strange apparition in the centre of the stage. At the end, I actually found there was a pause after the lights came down until I started applauding, almost as if my mind wanted to fully get over the shock and wonderment of what I had just witnessed before being able to acknowledge it. I don’t think that Salomé will be for everyone, in fact, I can imagine some people being very negative at being presented with a show that is really outside of the proverbial norm. However, if you have a taste for something different, and with some really amazing acting, then I would suggest you get yourself along and give it a whirl.

4 stars

Review by Terry Eastham

The story has been told before, but never like this.
An occupied desert nation. A radical from the wilderness on hunger strike. A girl whose mysterious dance will change the course of the world. This charged retelling turns the infamous biblical tale on its head, placing the girl we call Salomé at the centre of a revolution.
Internationally acclaimed director Yaël Farber (Les Blancs) draws on multiple accounts to create her urgent, hypnotic production on the Olivier stage.
Salomé is designed by Susan Hilferty with lighting design by Tim Lutkin, music and sound by Adam Cork, movement direction by Ami Shulman, fight direction by Kate Waters and dramaturgy by Drew Lichtenberg. Cast includes Philip Arditti, Paul Chahidi, Ramzi Choukair, Uriel Emil, Olwen Fouéré, Roseanna Frascona, Lloyd Hutchinson, Shahar Isaac, Aidan Kelly, Yasmin Levy, Andrew Lewis, Anna Lindup, Theo T J Lowe, Isabella Nefar, Lubana al Quntar,and Raad Rawi.

Previews from 2 May, with Press Night 9 May. Continuing in the repertoire until 15 July. Broadcast to cinemas by NT Live on 22 June.
Salomé will be broadcast live from the Olivier Theatre on 22 June 2017


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