‘Wherever the Romans go, aqueducts follow’

A balmy evening for my final evening at the theatre, tonight at the National Theatre on the south bank of the Thames.

Great view from Waterloo Bridge. Perfect seat in the Olivier Theatre.

The theatre, which is very capacious, it not full. Mixed reviews may explain this. Panned in The Guardian – “Yaël Farber’s turgid take on the biblical story leaves some fine actors stranded in the desert”. Faint praise in The Telegraph – “Worth a look? Yes. A cut above? I won’t stick my neck out on that”. Wisely, there is no interval.

The set and styling are adventurous. It looks amazing – with restlessly rotating stages, slow-mo physicality, ululations, cinema-epic robes and tableaux vivants worthy of Caravaggio. The aura of Harsh antiquity is nicely suggested, with ominous rumbling sounds aplenty. I loved it at the beginning, but it became oppressive as did the script during the central portion of the play.

One sequence, however, was the most theatrically OTT and has Isabella Nefar’s triumphant “Nameless” heroine, standing on an elongated, Last Supper-style table gathering giant curtains about her and billowing them furiously to the climactic-operatic sound of wild female ululations – with UFO halos of lighting going berserk too. It’s like some bizarre Eurovision entry. A lady in front tried to take a photo (please, God, no flash) but she was admonished by the person next to me. The photo above does not do the scene justice. It was the highlight of the staging.

Yaël Farber’s play reimagines the story of the unnamed woman in the Bible who, prompted by her mother, asked for the head of John the Baptist as a reward for dancing and stripping. Irritation with the way women have been represented leads Farber to wild licence. No longer Oscar Wilde’s siren, Salomé becomes a revolutionary force: the slaying of John the Baptist is a call to arms for embattled Christians. Salomé is not only a revolutionary woman, she is territory. Perhaps she a nexus. She is certainly not a character. “Her merkin has more personality” (The Guardian).

Salomé (played by Isabella Negar) has little dialogue. She gets nude and then struggles with a flimsy dress that gives us plenty of boob.

Her ragged, bare-foot elder self (Olwen Fouere) is seen circling around, looking back on her mistreatment. Olsen is the narrator throughout the performance. She bore an unfortunate resemblance to Patsy Stone’s mother (in the TV series AdFab). I struggled to overcome this association.

John the Baptist gave me the irrits from the get-go, speaking in Hebrew so you had to read the translation from the back of the stage. His dialogue was a mix of the Song of Songs, the Baptist’s cry and some of Jesus’ saying. All a bit confused.

Herod (Paul Chahidi) played a creepy step-father, a role perfect for the late Frank Thring, though I doubt he would touch this production.

I didn’t understand Salomé’s pitying infatuation with the baptising outlaw nor what was intended by his invitation for her to bathe, naked, in water, in pseudo-baptismal fashion. Perhaps a respite from the harsh sand that rains magnificently down, in a mockery of hydration?

I had hoped this production would rise to the quality of Everyman, but it did not.

However, I was bounced by the wonderful vista on my walk home.

One comment

  1. Elsbeth

    What a play! And what a review of it!! No wonder the view on the walk home was a relief and saved the evening.

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