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Review: SALOME, National Theatre

Salome, that dancing seductress who demanded the head of John the Baptist, has been reclaimed by Yael Farber in this new feminist interpretation (the RSC stages Oscar Wilde's more familiar take next month). Or at least that's the intention, but Farber's production sacrifices the personal for the mythic - ironically once again losing the woman history erased in a storm of overblown symbolism.

Farber assumes her audience is au fait with the New Testament tale and its subsequent artistic representations, but even so this telling can be bewildering. Her writing cycles between self-consciously, cod-Biblical poetic and awkwardly explicit, yet even during the latter you'd be forgiven for losing the narrative trail.

Present-day Salome is visited at the end of her life by Pontius Pilate, who wants an explanation for her behaviour - here recast as a political act that sparked a revolution. In flashback, Salome is preyed upon by her lecherous stepfather and husband-to-be Herod, witnesses his wrangling with local religious leaders, and is finally inspired to action by her enlightening meeting with Iokanaan the Zealot (John the Baptist).

The trouble is that Farber spends more time on the vague, portentous pronouncements (threatening to tip into National Theatre of Brent parody) than on concrete development of her characters or their world. There are the beginnings of some interesting modern parallels: Iokanaan is the agitating insurgent, Salome the self-described refugee, and her body becomes the battleground for this occupied nation - she's invaded by Herod as her homeland is by Rome.

But Farber's use of contemporary language jars (Pontius has been censured for "excessive force"), and without allowing for emotional connection to these specific people, it remains a fleeting idea, not a strong basis for 110 minutes of drama.

Salome suffers most, asked to encompass every occupied land and every woman ever abused by a man. Olwen Fouéré is commanding in her delivery, but stuck vocalising what Farber elsewhere insists is an act "beyond language" - and with this text, probably should have remained so. As the young version, Isabella Nefar has some compelling moments, cringing away from the wandering hands of Paul Chahidi's exceedingly nasty Herod or cleansing herself with sand, but Salome remains a distanced symbol.

Thank heavens for Chahidi, who also injects some dry wit into the man who freely accepts his dastardly puppet ruler behaviour as the price of politics; it's the only glimmer of - albeit cynical - humour in an otherwise dangerously po-faced piece. But he, too, is underserved.

Ramzi Choukair is effectively intense as the fanatical Iokanaan, though having projected translation of his Arabic speech means continuously glancing away from an impressive physical performance. Philip Arditti and Raad Rawi do what they can with the underwritten priests - one of many subplots that could be absorbing if fleshed out.

Farber's production does have a stylish, hypnotic quality, with Yasmin Levy and Lubana al Quntar's haunting wails of song (by Adam Cork) and some beautifully realised, arresting tableaux: a tumbling fountain of sand, a ladder stretching endlessly, a Last Supper-esque choreographed table setting. But overuse means epic becomes mundane, and the operatic and ritualistic slightly cheesy.

Ami Shulman's movement is cleverly patterned but so deliberate it's as though the whole piece takes place underwater. Perhaps appropriate given that Farber's work also treads water: telling us within the first few minutes what will happen and what it's supposed to mean, and then struggling to find anything more engaging to say.

Salome at National Theatre until 15 July, with an NT Live broadcast on 22 June

Photo credit: Johan Persson

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