FringeReview UK 2017
Yael Farber who made a great impact last year directing Lorraine Hanbury’s Les Blancs returns with her own Salomé at the Olivier. Susan Hilferty’s set is stripped for swoops of spectacle. Muted Roman garb dashed with the occasional Kalashnikov counterpoints the Romanized client wear. This being the Olivier Tim Lutkin’s lighting and spotlighting splits the night, including tenebrous tenderness down a cistern. Adam Cork amplifies the vocally iridescent Women of Song.
Here’s a great divider of critical heads. Yael Farber who made a great impact last year directing Lorraine Hanbury’s Les Blancs returns with her own Salomé at the Olivier. Anyone who saw the Hanbury will recognize the ritualistic use Farber makes of the Olivier, though Susan Hilferty’s set is stripped for swoops of spectacle.
First the pricking of a white bubble of air: the prone young protagonist is unveiled as her elder self progresses down the aisle. The dark numinous blanks of the wings fill with incantation, a very last Supper Table and bolts of Burgundy curtain made emblematic use of.
If this makes you think Peter Brook’s Holy Theatre you’d be close. Muted Roman garb dashed with the occasional Kalashnikov counterpoints the Romanized Herod of Paul Chahidi and Philp Arditti’s sulky Caiaphus, High Priest. This being the Olivier Tim Lutkin’s lighting and spotlighting splits the night, including the tenebrous tenderness down a cistern. Adam Cork amplifies the vocally iridescent Women of Song, Yasmin Levy and Lubana Al Quntar.
Farber knows she must turn Iokanaan’s beheading on its head, and strip back the Salomé narrative by taking it literally butt-on. A grumpy, nasty Pilate – still obsessed with viaducts as he was in the wistful Anatole France story – visits the older incarcerated Salomé, a name conferred by Romano-Jewish historian Jospehus. Why did she do what she did? That a girl might thwart him is intolerable.
Lloyd Hutchinson’s exasperation at future exile to Gaul is allowed little sympathy though Hutchinson himself doesn’t convey much brutal menace when he litanizes tutelary massacres, quite unlike the Pilate we think we know. Hutchinson has a point too. Perhaps something more nuanced could have been made of him, but Farber can’t layer her ciphers in complexity when she’s intent on highlighting something almost lost.
The strikingly contralto-voiced Olwen Fouéré, seraphically white-haired, would suggest it’s at least thirty years on when it’s more like ten. Farber’s asking how she acquires her name, because before this Salomé’s Nameless, the young step-daughter of lustful Herod, and at this latter point she’s still Nameless. Fouéré compels attention in every deliberate syllable but she won’t answer Pilate, she answers us. Her language, indeed all the phrasing in this magma of Song of Solomon and later Yeats – notably ‘The Second Coming’ – memorably binds vatic utterance with rather good verse.
There’s a mix too of Hebrew and English in the same dialogues, the former in Iokanaan’s speeches immediately translated on the wall backing proceedings – emblematically a Warning Wall before it becomes a Wailing one though as we’re often in the Temple, properly the West Wall. Sparing use is made of the drum revolve but this production reveals spatial spectaculars, not busy ones.
Here there’s no ambitious mother Herodias, who puts her daughter up to asking for heads on chargers. What we’re treated to is exposition of Roman occupation, Pilate’s brutal proposals: drive a viaduct across burial grounds and tax the population; worse, extort monies from the Temple itself. Romanized Herod’s indifferent to such redevelopment, Chahidi oiling his equivocations as if rendered super-supple by his latest Roman massage. Arditti’s Caiaiphus smothers a compromised fury only partly because events overtake outrage.
Iokanaan’s insurrectionist activities mean Ramzi Choukair must be incarcerated but not killed. There’s much talk of Jews being so emotional when there’s rather a lot to be emotional about. Iokanaan cast into a cistern by use of a ladder trick (it rises as he’s thrust down) clearly refuses food and drink. Salomé manages to visit him. ‘Do not look upon her for she is dark./ Dark as the tents of Kedar./Dark as the curtains of Solo is she.’
Isabella Nefar’s already been subjected to murderous desires by Chahidi’s Herod. She’s hitherto been a mute object, even labelled ‘Salomé so-called’ by Farber. Her descent recalls Babylonian Ishtar’s removing of veils in the underworld to reclaim her lover. Iokanaan immediately recognizes her for what she is, and his exhortations from The Song of Solomon not only involves water baptism as she disrobes, but in effect a tender platonic marriage ceremony where in Thomas More style and bar one loin cloth both nakedly reveal themselves. This at the least is achingly original and where Farber finds the voices she seeks, often in mute recognition. Some of the Songs of Solomon seems strikingly-made for Choukair’s erotic cistern song: ‘showing himself through the lattice…. He is in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs.’
What follows is worth waiting for. We’ve had the spectacular rim of cascading sand and another later falls on Nefar. The conclusion though to Salomé-so-called dancing is her grasping of two swathes of curtains at the back walls pulling them together. The echo of Sampson pulling down the pillars of the Philistines’ Temple of Dagon is blasphemously clear: only these are pillars of the Temple of Jerusalem, which she knows will follow. Not so school of Delilah then. There’s a bit of Judith in our Salomé-so-called. Recalling their tendresse the notion that Salomé-so-called might have quietly intoned ‘yes I’ll have your head’ sets up parallel consummations not allayed by some of the later ballet on that long table.
Quite why the arc of history must result in diaspora and exile is occlusive – and a bit teleological. But it’s a compelling contrast to Caiaiphus’ assertion that the Jews will always reside here, no matter who the invaders. Or Uriel Emil’s Giora the Hebrew Guard’s assertion with Pilate: there’ll always be occupiers. In that sense too Farber exploits theorists such as Hélene Cixous with women and ground as male appropriations. Exploding into diaspora is in this reading an ultimate feminine rejection of nationalist ground, site of male empery.
High falutin’? This productions begs those questions, heavy with allusive language and twisted quotes. The acting’s superb throughout. There’s fine support too from Aidan Kelly’s truculent Abaddon the executioner, distant grandsire to Pierpoint Morgan, the other gun-toter Shahar Isaac’s Bar Giora and Theo T J Lowe’s Yashua the Madman.
But the mute colloquy between Fouéré and Nefar is the most affecting after the cistern tryst, selves calling to each other across silence. This, the pith of identity and its erasure, is hypnotically transferred as the denouement bruits about them.
This piece doesn’t merit its occasional opprobrium and as for revival, I wonder. It needs a touch more pace without becoming shriller in the process, a difficult call. And though the Olivier’s hypnotic, it’s unlikely to return here soon. The place for Holy Theatre at the moment is The Print Room’s Coronet, and reprising this with a small loss of spectacle might focus the transformative potential of this superbly-conceived transgression.