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Review: Salome

Yael Ferber's new play Salome is unforgettable, but it's not theatre, says John Nathan.

Olivier

    Isabella Nefar and Olwen Fouere in Salome
    Isabella Nefar and Olwen Fouere in Salome PHOTO: JOHAN PERSSON

    If I had to identify just a single hallmark of theatre created by the writer/director Yael Farber, it is that her productions are unforgettable. They include the searing Strindberg-inspired Mies Julie; a harrowing response to the notorious Delhi bus rape and murder, and a terrifying revisiting of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

    All invoke the power of women. And so, too, does this attempt to rewrite the story and reputation of Salome. Here Herod’s seductress daughter is redrawn as a revolutionary challenger of Pontius Pilate’s authority.

    Farber has carved a career from pushing the rules of conventional theatre and here she tears up the entire book. This time the result evokes a sense of antiquity that is more convincing than any I have ever seen on stage.

    Designer Susan Hilferty shapes the air with shafts of light and great swathes of linen. A curtain of sand falls like some great biblical act of God and serenading the entire uninterrupted one hour and forty five minutes are two women (the Israeli singer-songwriter Yasmina Levy and the Syrian singer Lubana al Quntar) whose voices are as redolent of ritual as the sound of a shofar.

    The (New Testament) story’s characters, include Herod, Pilate and Jewish custodians of the Temple. They glide into and out of view carried by a revolve turning at dead-slow speed. In fact everything here happens in slo-mo, from the singing to the suffering wrought by Pilate’s cruel occupation. Salome disrobes instead of dances, an act that evokes a sense of sacrifice rather than seduction.

    Clearly, Farber decided to reject period drama as a way of telling the story. The result feels utterly authentic but fatally ponderous. The language of the script — a mix of English, Aramaic and Arabic — demands to be intoned rather than performed.

    “It begins at the end,” says the woman narrator, apparently an older version of the story’s heroine. “For I am the first and the last,” she continues, and continues… and so does everyone else in roughly the same vein.

    I have struggled with the star rating of this review more than with any other I can think of. Three is a recommendation and anyone who goes as a result could reasonably hold me responsible of exposing them to the longest 105 minutes of their lives. So I won’t do that. But there are elements here that shouldn’t be dismissed, not least the sight of Hebrews swathed in tallits during an ancient Yom Kippur; the sense of one religion being riven from another, and the bravery of stripping a play from the pacing and conventions of most shows.

    Yet calling it theatre doesn’t seem quite right. Perhaps it would work better as an installation. But whatever it is, it’s unforgettable.

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