I’ve seen Oscar Wilde’s Salomé before, but when I found out that Yaël Farber was doing a version at the National Theatre, I knew I’d have to see that too. I’ve been a fan ever since her fantastic Crucible at the Old Vic, and I wondered what she’d be able to bring to Wilde’s play.
Quite a lot, in fact. The play has been completely transformed, barely recognisable as Wilde’s piece (his name isn’t even credited in the programme). Farber has tried to remake the play to give it additional political and cultural weight. No longer is it about a spoiled princess whose tantrum over her rejection by John the Baptist leads her to demand his head on a platter. Rather, it’s a young woman trapped in a man’s world who takes control and tries to free her people by killing Jokanaan – thus rousing their anger to drive out the Romans.
The story is told in flashback by Old Salomé (Olwen Fouéré), who watches her silent younger self (Isabella Nefar) coping with her lecherous uncle Herod (Paul Chahidi) and meeting the prophet Jokanaan (Ramzi Choukair) before taking matters into her own hands. It’s portrayed in a hugely ritualistic way, with atmospheric singing by Lubana Al Quntar and Yasmin Levy providing the soundtrack, some beautiful staging, and slow movement. The character of Jokanaan does not speak English (his lines are translated via screens at the back), emphasising the character’s difference.
The piece is a bit slow at times, and I can understand why some people didn’t like it, but I found it absorbing and was impressed with how Farber has managed to make this powerful and symbolic drama, invoking feminism, colonialism and every version of the Salomé tale for centuries, out of a play I have to admit I was never that keen on.