It’s a Biblical head-to-head. In Stratford-upon-Avon, a heavily homoerotic version of Oscar Wilde’s one-act Symbolist drama, Salomé, is being produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company. And in London, the National Theatre serves up Yaël Farber’s radical reinterpretation of the myth, in which the titular princess is a proto-feminist revolutionary. The resulting two productions have more in common than you might expect. For the RSC, Owen Horsley directs Matthew Tennyson as a vengeful boy-girl temptress, a fragile, flirtatious creature who embodies the illicit desires buried in Wilde’s often suffocatingly ornate, poetic text. White chiffon flutters in clouds onto the audience at the climax of the Dance of the Seven Veils, a singer in leather and studs delivers defiant indie pop numbers by the Seattle artist Perfume Genius. It’s sometimes exhilarating, but hobbled by Wilde’s writing, and by a lack of clear dramatic or political purpose.
Farber’s production, meanwhile, is equally strong on visuals and music, and her script, sadly, is just as overripe. But her political intent is infinitely clearer. Lighting upon the fact that Salomé is unnamed in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John, viewed instead only as a dancing girl, an object of dangerous lust, she seeks to reclaim the character, and to restore her humanity.
Her body is a tabula rasa on to which men project their appetites, and symbolises the disputed land of Jerusalem. She is to be fought over, plundered. Accordingly, Farber divides her into two: the beautiful young woman known as Salomé (played by Isabella Nefar), prisoner of Herod’s court and “property of empire,” silently plotting rebellion; and her older self, Nameless (Olwen Fouéré), wild, grey-haired, wise, furious, reclaiming her femininity, her will, her sense of self. This Salomé’s bloodthirsty demand for the head of John the Baptist is nothing to do with wounded female vanity or frustrated sexual passion, but a hardheaded attempt to ignite revolution.
South African auteur Farber’s productions typically have a mesmeric sense of ritual, and this one is no exception. Nefar repeatedly attempts to cleanse away the violations to which her flesh has been subject by dousing herself in streaming sand. Hot, golden light plays across billowing fabric that falls in vast sheets from the ceiling. Ladders climb from the murk of the dungeon where Ramzi Choukair’s Iokanaan (John the Baptist) is in chains, to the glare of desert sun and, maybe, celestial splendour. Lush tableaux, like something from a canvas by Da Vinci or Caravaggio, place images from familiar religious iconography, shimmering like mirages, alongside Farber’s new narrative. Gorgeous, ululating music by Adam Cork, sung live by Lubana al Quntar, underscores the interplay of choreographed spectacle and gesture.
The problem is the text. It’s heavy-handed, over-embellished, too brow-beatingly earnest at its most political, and embarrassingly wet around the mouth when it attempts sensuality. Paul Chahidi is a voracious, lascivious Herod and Choukair a hard-working and intense Iokanaan, who speaks volubly and vigorously in Arabic. But Nefar can bring little personality to a character who remains elusive, and Fouéré, for all her fire and ferocity, similarly struggles to engage. Farber is an extraordinary theatre artist, and in spite of this production’s faults, there are moments here that stun and astonish. But if, as her play suggests, Salomé is a mystery, then for now at least, she remains one.