Yaël Farber
Olivier Theatre (National Theatre)

Isabella Nefar (Centre) Credit: Johan Persson
Ramzi Choukair and Uriel Emil Credit: Johan Persson
Isabella Nefar and Olwen Fouere Credit: Johan Persson

Salomé has been the inspiration for numerous works across the arts and the ages, generally depicted on canvas with the head of John the Baptist to hand. On the stage, to date her most memorable portrayal has come from Oscar Wilde, although Richard Strauss has contributed an operatic interpretation of her fiery life.

Yaël Farber has made a name for herself with productions that look beautiful and seek to get far into the souls of her leading characters.

From the opening on a double revolve, this new play is deeply atmospheric and visually memorable.

Every tableau on display looks like an old master, thanks to the efforts of designer Susan Hilferty and lighting colleague Tim Lutkin. This impression is then heightened by the work of movement director Ami Shulman, who maintains a tempo that often comes close to slow motion.

Adam Cork’s music and the haunting, almost wailing voices of Yasmin Levy and Lubana Al Quntar then add an extra dimension. That pairing is telling, since they are respectively Israeli and Syrian, showing a significant crossing of dangerous borders that is reflected in much of the other casting and makes a tangential comment on the storyline.

This looks in a bleak way at the interactions between the Romans and the Hebrews in the era of the second Herod (Tetrarch). Paul Chahid’s character is obliged to indulge in a series of battles to protect his royal line and personal influence.

In revolutionary times, the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, played by Lloyd Hutchinson, is struggling to maintain control, only too happy to execute the odd Hebrew pour encourager les autres.

This leads to clashes with the high priest of the holy temple or Sanhedrin but also a number of unruly zealots.

Nothing is simple or easily intelligible in this piece. At its centre is “Salomé so-called”, who barely says a word but dances beautifully at the behest of her stepfather, Herod, a lascivious man whose thoughts about her could never be described as honourable.

While Italian actress Isabella Nefar is almost silent throughout the 100-minute performance, she makes a powerful impression, helped by the impassioned, poetic vocalisation of her thoughts from Olwen Fouéré’s Nameless, who also performs a similar service for the other central figure.

This is Iokanaan (better known in this country as John the Baptist) played by Syrian-French actor Ramzi Choukair.

He is a heavily bearded, long-haired loose cannon who ignores proprieties in his efforts to spread the holy word, albeit in Arabic, threatening the shaky alliance between Herod and Pilate, while driving Salomé so-called to murderous distraction.

The ending of the tale is inevitable but in order to get there, the creative team has put together a work that combines dance, movement, music and beautiful visual effects in a manner that will please those that enjoy understated spectacle, even if they are sometimes a loss to understand exactly what is happening on the stage.

Salomé is part of the Travelex £15 season, allowing viewers to get cheap seats throughout the run, and will be broadcast via NT Live on 22 June.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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