"There is no language for what happened that night," states Salome in narration as her older self shortly after beginning this new, happily more feminist, retelling of the myth surrounding the woman who we think of as having lasciviously danced the dance of the seven veils before demanding the head of John the Baptist to be served to her on a silver plate. Correction 1: it may be the beginning of the play, but we are also told "it begins at the end". Correction 2: her older self isn't actually called 'Salome' but 'Nameless'. Correction 3: actually her younger self isn't called 'Salome' either but 'Salome so-called'. These 'corrections' alone may give you an idea of the levels of pomposity to come in the 110 minutes that follow.
Perhaps the line between pure unadulterated art for its own sake and self-important pretension is finer than we think.
Dear God (which may also be said in either flowery metaphor or ancient Arabic at various points – who knows?!), if only those words uttered were also true of the play, for then the sometime truly wondrous visual imagery before us may just have pushed this towards mastery rather than pretension. As it is, with gardens and food the overused sexual analogies, one note delivery of ancient Arabic made no clearer by the translations projected upstage, and references to biblical places and people that mean nothing without prior knowledge, the overall effect is more akin to a final year project devised by students of performance art (albeit a very, very good one!) At best it should fill us with awe, but for the most it unfortunately embarrasses and fills many with cynical laughter.
One gets the feeling that a knowledge of, and appreciation for, director Yael Farber's approach is paramount to the enjoyment one will get from this piece. The programme notes state she is interested in the stories of women erased from the political sphere through history, and her reframing of Salome as "the vineyard keeper (who has) never kept her own vineyard" (yes, really) makes her murderous act to be one of reclaiming the soul of both herself and Judea, as it makes a martyr of Iokanaan (come on, you know that was John the Baptist's real name don't you?!) – so potentially opening the gateway to Christianity.
A rather major conceit perhaps but so far, so intriguing...
And the staging has moments of pure and outstanding beauty. Sand teems down from the sky across the vast Olivier stage. A ladder appears and seems to build never ending up to the heavens. Moments of compete stillness create Renaissance-style tableaux reminiscent of The Last Supper (I'm certain it's no coincidence that there are 13 in the cast and therefore at dinner). The 'dance' itself sees the stage and Salome (so-called) enveloped by one massive 'curtain' that has a hypnotising effect. For the first 20 minutes or so, the cliché of one's jaw having dropped became a truism rather than metaphor.
But it's the metaphor of the piece – aided by the lack of a change in pace, energy or delivery – that very quickly alienates the audience and gives you the impression that they think this is too clever to be appreciated by us poor mortal souls. The stillness becomes too common and soon loses impact. The revolve almost never stops and so soon becomes unseen. The moving musical intones of the Arabian women soon becomes piercing wailing. But the language... I will leave it to a few direct examples of many – "I am a wall and thy breasts like a tower", "Come north wing and blow south on my garden so the spices may flow", "an image of silver... a moonbeam"
Perhaps the line between pure unadulterated art for its own sake and self-important pretension is finer than we think. It is reminiscent of a documentary that you feel you should watch, that you think should enrich your life, that should make you feel worthy... but that you can never quite be bothered to watch. Or if you do, you can't really shake the feeling of being left disappointed and cold.
That said, I'm glad this has found a place at the National right now. No matter what some may say in their moans about the selection of plays put on, look at the entire mix and that's what makes it our National. I like that I was surprised and that it was nothing like I expected. I like that some people felt angry about it – rather than congratulating themselves for doing the eight-hour nostalgia trip next door. And the moments of greatness are indeed unlike anything else I've seen on stage and could only be seen on a stage. No it doesn't all really work in its entirety but I push it to two stars for those who want to be challenged and to experience something very different. Even if you hate it – and you might – it will give you thought, discussion and at the very least, a smile and interesting topic for debate.