Robert Tanitch reviews Salomé at National Theatre/Olivier, London.
Salomé said she would dance for Herod but only if he gave her John the Baptist’s head. You probably know the story from the gospels of Matthew, Mark and John, but it was actually the Roman-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus who gave her a name.
Salomé has inspired so many artists – Titian, Caravaggio, Moreau and Beardsley, etc.
If you want a play it has to be Oscar Wilde. If you want an opera it has to be Richard Strauss. If you enjoy kitsch there’s always Theda Bara’s silent film.
If you want a ballet there’s Flemming Flimdt. If you just want to see the dance of the seven veils (a Wilde invention) you could try Loië Fuller. If you want camp transvestite hysteria in slow motion Lindsay Kemp would have been your man.
But if it’s sex you really want, then you will have to listen to Strauss’s erotic overture.
Sarah Bernhardt was to have created Salomé for Wilde but the Lord Chamberlain refused to give them a licence and rehearsals were abandoned.
The best Wilde I saw was Steven Berkoff’s extremely mannered production (in which every syllable was clearly enunciated) at the National Theatre in 1989.
The present production, which lasts 1 hour, 50 minutes and no interval, is written and directed by Yaël Farber.
Salomé is no longer a femme fatale and nor is she Gustave Flaubert’s virgin-whore. She has been transformed into a revolutionary and the killing of Jokanaan is a political not an act of sexual revenge.
The role is divided between two actresses: Olwen Fouréré (who had played Salomé for Berkoff) and Isabella Nefar. “I am she who does not speak,” says Fouréré, speaking all the time.
The portentous script is often obscure and always heavy-going.
Syrian-French actor Ramzi Choukair is Jokanaan Wearing only a loin cloth, he speaks in Arabic (There are sur-titles in English.) Paul Chahidi is a drooling Herod and Lloyd Hutchinson is a murderous Pilate.
The spectacular production is acted on a constantly revolving stage and is brilliantly lit by Tim Lutkin. The images – such as The Last Supper, a shower of golden sand, and Salomé descending a ladder into Jokanaan’s prison cell – are striking.
I enjoyed the production far more than the radical re-imaginings and wished Farber had either stuck with Wilde or directed Strauss.
Salomé will also be broadcast by NT Live on Thursday 22 June 2017