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Review: Salomé, at National Theatre (Olivier)

19 May, 2017 — By Howard Loxton

Nadine Malouf in Salomé. Photo: Tristram Kenton

THIS isn’t Oscar Wilde’s play about a sexy dancer who is killed between clashing shields. Writer-director Yaël Farber’s has a very different response to the biblical story of the woman who asked for the head of John the Baptist. She presents her as a political figure, a woman like many that a male-dominated society wrote out of history.

Out of darkness and mist come two women, singing Adam Cork’s Middle Eastern harmonies, the beginnings of a sound score that underpins the play.

Figures move slowly or remain stationary as the ground revolves beneath them.

“We begin at the end,” says an elderly Salomé who calls herself Nameless, after she is discovered beneath billowing plastic. As this harsh-spoken Salomé (Olwen Fouéré) tells her confused story, Isabella Nefar silently acts out her young self. Here Iokanaan (John the Baptist), in a watery dungeon beneath Herod’s castle, is a zealot, a political voice against the occupying Romans as he is a prophet.

He speaks always in Arabic (with text titles), and is kept alive because the authorities fear public reaction were he to be executed.

In its 110 minutes (no interval) this Salomé is often grandly theatrical but rarely moving.

When Ramzi Choukair’s sonorous Iokanaan is tortured to break his hunger strike, it’s the actor you feel sorry for despite his committed performance.

The plot is not easy to follow, but the stark simplicity of Susan Hilferty’s design makes Farber’s production look magnificent. And if the telling lacks clarity Tim Lutkin’s lighting, especially on bare flesh, creates images that could have been made by Caravaggio.

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