Chloe-Louise Saunders recounts the National Theatre’s immersive and intense take on Wilde’s late Victorian tale – while vibrant and nuanced, is this a play where less is more?
It’s a Saturday night, my red wine is in my hand (what I believe to be a perfect aesthetic representation of what I am about to witness), and the Olivier Theatre’s buzz is settling down as the first shadowy figures of Yael Farber’s new adaptation of Wilde’s 1893 play take to the stage. As the first few moments unfold, we are promised an exciting, edgy and female-driven retelling of the original story. In its Biblical original, Salome exists as merely a subjugated figure, perennially silenced, a portrayal which this production seeks to subvert. As Olwen Fouere’s Nameless – an ever present, older version of the eponymous character – performs her first mesmerising soliloquy, Salome is granted a voice, and through this, a political agency.
Susan Hilferty’s stage design leaves nothing to be desired: an intense red glow, ladders reaching into the heavens, and trickling water, create a world of blood and ritual in which to retell the story. The rotating floor stows characters away at the back of the stage, shrouded in mist, before revealing them as they slide around and through centre stage. This movement effectively exhibits constant passive biding in the shadows. The production turns Salome’s initial passivity into a way of absorbing and calculating and Isabella Nefar’s quiet watchfulness in the role is hypnotic.
“While the nature of Salome’s story bleeds through this successfully, it does not leave any room for reflection or subtlety.”
However, as the production reaches its climactic portrayal of the “dance of the seven veils”, I realise that a potentially gob-smacking play is perhaps weighed down by its own unyielding intensity. Every moment is saturated with overwhelming visuals and sound. While the nature of Salome’s story bleeds through this successfully, it does not leave any room for reflection or subtlety. I leave feeling utterly bombarded. The play needn’t have been steeped in the shock factor; the reinvention of an originally misogynistic tale could have been powerful enough in its stripped back essence.
(Image courtesy of Tristam Kenton)