As someone with a proven track record of going to the theatre only to emerge a few hours later filled with righteous feminist indignation at the performance just gone, I found watching Yaël Farber’s Salomé an oddly disconcerting experience.
I so intensely wanted to like this play. The ideas underpinning Farber’s narrative and this staging are fascinating – or at least they are when explained in the printed text of the programme rather than rendered obliquely onto stage. The basic premise is to re-write the story of the woman (believed to be Salomé) behind John the Baptist’s beheading, and to free her from the sexy salaciousness of the Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley era. However, in the same way that the Fin de Siécle artists used the myth (key word, right there) of Salomé as a vehicle for exploring their own preoccupations with decadence and sexual violence, Farber’s Salomé uses the tale as an exemplar of the selective writing of history by the male, victorious pen. Related to this is a desire to give the voiceless a voice, specifically the voiceless female.
And if that didn’t already sound like my cup of theatre tea, Farber’s play is given an ambitious first staging that deliberately smudges and blurs the ruler-drawn blueprint of traditional theatre. In the programme essay, dramaturg Drew Lichtenburg describes it as “a collective ritual that is also a history of violence, a play that is also a dance, a painting, a continuous stage direction, a voice of the voiceless.” Within the continuous repetition of the same music, the same movements and the same tone throughout, there is someone undeniably ritualistic about the production. And this is even without the addition of the more familiar elements of religiosity: the absolving water, the confined roles for all taking part, the collective praying.
On a more rewarding level for the audience, there is a gorgeous painterly quality to both the lushness of Susan Hilferty’s gold-hued set design and the recurrent use of tableaux. Da Vinci’s Last Supper gets more than a nod to, but there are also continual reminders of the neoclassical works of J. W. Waterhouse, both in subject matter and in the use of a dusty ochre-and-cream palette punctuated by turquoise. With lots of female limbs tangled in heaps at the feet of Roman officials, the artist’s painting of Saint Eulalia also springs to mind.
One of the major problems with the production is that even this opulent, grandiose design (the production’s biggest strength) at moments seems simply naff. All the billowing and cascading and po-faced insistence on making this the most epic of epics, the most powerful of powerful productions is in the end counterintuitive. Despite setting out to disrupt the Wildean picture, what’s offered in its place is arguably just as reliant on an attractive aesthetic and spectacle.
The other trouble with the work is that what lies beneath all the sand-and-water-pouring is simultaneously chaotic and disengaging. The poetry freely strays into cliché and the inclusion of both historical accuracy (an oh-so-causal convo about aqueducts by the Romans) and modernity (the machine guns carried by the guards) sit awkwardly. The central motif of an old Salomé (Nameless played by Olwen Fouéré) and young Salomé (Salomé so-called played by Isabella Nefar) is intriguing, but ultimately under utilised.
Aside from all of this, aspects of the staging jar with the claim that this is an unambiguously feminist play. Nefar’s principle moment on stage involves stripping naked. Unlike Iokanaan/John the Baptist (Ramzi Choukair) she doesn’t get to keep her pants on and the whole slow disrobing process is done facing out into the Olivier’s auditorium. When she is then re-clothed in diaphanous white our heroine succumbs to the odd urge to pop back her dress and reveal one boob. Is this another quality that makes the production ‘like a painting’, I wonder? After all, the 17 – 18th century portrait painters had quite a thing for the one-boob look. Or is all of this – including the subsequent ceremonial soaking of the white dress (no one mention wet t-shirts) – intended to evoke ideas about the majesty of the female form and statuesque moon goddesses?
Some women, I believe, find female nudity empowering. Maybe it is simply cold-bloodedness that makes me struggle with it. Or maybe it’s because its frequent inclusion in stage, film, television and advertising as the result of simple sexism makes reclaiming it feels like a hugely complicated act. Looked at another way, perhaps it’s just not necessary for me to dispute what other women want to call feminism. I’m not the feminism police, after all.
Watching Salomé served as a reminder that there is no one-size-fits-all feminism. What one woman sees as an inspiring reclaiming of an historical figure might well leave another entirely cold. This links to a wider point about how plays that have something – anything – to do with female experiences often remain in their own special-interest category. In the case of a play written and directed by men we don’t assume that all men in the audience will like it. But when we replace the ‘men’ in the previous sentence with ‘women’ the urge to make this assumption is much stronger.
Indeed, it’s pervasive to the point of often being internalised by women themselves – in this case me. I have no one but myself to blame for my angst at not liking a play I thought I was meant to like. Note that I didn’t say in advance “Oh, Rosemary, here is a play for you since you’re dead into reimaginings of theological texts and the ancient world”. I went because I feel on some level obliged to go to productions labelled as ‘feminist’ and then feel actively bad if I don’t relate to or like what I see. Which is both a sad and a stupid thing to do. I can’t quite disentangle exactly what underwrites this impulse, only that it is something to do with frantically trying to hold on the myth of the Sisterhood. The problem though, as Farber’s Salomé demonstrates, is that the harder you try to grasp a myth, the quicker it disintegrates.
Salomé is on at the National Theatre until 15th July 2017. Click here for more details.