The place is Jerusalem; the year, 1 A.D. A muted lighting design conjures up the dark, oppressive milieu and two hooded women enter singing a raw, emotional lament to set the tone for the tale about to unfold. In this National Theatre production, director Yaël Farber takes on the ancient story of Salomé — who traded a mesmerising dance for the head of John the Baptist — and turns this biblical footnote into a thought-provoking narrative. Salomé the play is the product of a reimagined history, in which the eponymous heroine, underestimated and abused, uses her agency to change the course of her own story and that of her people.
Narrating the series of events leading up to her own death is an older incarnation of the young, lithe figure of legend. Olwen Fouéré brings a satisfactory amount of gravitas to the role, which is listed as ‘Nameless’. ‘I am she whose hour has come to speak,’ proclaims this nameless woman, thereby seeming to cast herself as representative of more marginalised figures than just the one forming the focus of this play. Isabella Nefar is compelling as the younger Salomé, an impressive feat considering the fact that she’s completely silent until about halfway through the play. Her character’s sense of defeatedness —at least initially— contrasts perfectly with her older counterpart’s almost sly air of calm superiority over her tormentors. Nefar’s moments of emotional and physical vulnerability are subtly and sensitively portrayed, and consequently very difficult to watch.
The character of Pontius Pilate serves as a sort of mouthpiece for the cruelties and excesses of the Roman Empire, under whose occupation the Hebrew people of Jerusalem are forced to live. Lloyd Hutchinson does a fine job in the role of the Prefect, and manages to temper the pure villainy of his character with a real sense of desperation in his frustrating interactions with the purposefully mute Salomé who won’t tell him her secrets. Paul Chahidi is absolutely terrifying as the repulsive Herod, Salomé’s uncle. The young actor in the role of the high priest Caiaphas is a bit heavy-handed in his approach, sadly, and overdoes the dramatic intention behind his lines to the extent that his performance pulls one out of the action at times.
Central to the play is the mystery surrounding the young Salomé’s actions. What happened that night at Herod Tetrarch’s celebration in the tent? Why did the charismatic preacher from the desert end up losing his head? The older Salomé teases the audience by remembering herself as she had been ‘before [she] did what had to be done’, and the whole play’s action revolves around the slow unravelling of the hidden motivations behind the execution of the Baptist. In this version of events, the emphasis is squarely on the violence perpetrated on colonised bodies and minds by occupying forces, and Salomé finds herself embroiled in the start of a revolution. ‘You will learn, we do not belong to ourselves,’ a Hebrew guard tells his captive, John the Baptist.
The production uses a variety of effects to draw the audience into old Judea, including the presence of the river Jordan on stage, some very evocative lighting choices and mesmerising movement sequences, and the mournful sounds of the two hooded singers, who contribute a great deal to the overall atmosphere.
As for the text itself, a substantial amount of style seems to have been sacrificed on the Altar of Making a Point. The dialogue suffers under the weight of clunky exposition in places, as the relatively short running time doesn’t afford the production enough room to take the audience through the history of Judea in a more sophisticated way, and some of the older Salomé’s soliloquy seems to have come straight from the pages of a swords-and-sandals epic circa 1978. ‘You will find the Judean devoted to one thing only: a jealous, male, desert god,’ proclaims one character. Fair point, perhaps, but not at all subtly made. Why would any inhabitant of a decidedly patriarchal, monotheistic society from 2 000 years ago feel the need to qualify his statement by adding the world ‘male’? How could the God of Judah be anything but male to someone from that time and place? All these regrettable slips point to a perceptible hastiness as far as the construction of the play is concerned. A pity, as there was real potential here to stage something memorable about one of Judeo-Christianity’s forgotten women.
Despite the difficulties inherent in the text, the cast succeed in building a very watchable tableau of conquered bodies resisting their oppressors. ‘We who hold the pen, scribe the history,’ intones Pontius Pilate gleefully at one point, rather artlessly reminding us of the importance of alternative representations like this one. Yes, the approach may be less than subtle, but the contribution is nevertheless valuable.
Warning: This production depicts scenes suggestive of sexual violence, and contains some nudity. Salomé will be screened as part of the NT Live season, and can be seen at Cinema Nouveau at the V&A Waterfront on the 23rd, 26th, and 27th of July. Bookings can be made at www.sterkinekor.co.za.