Review: SALOMÉ at the National Theatre, Olivier

The two shows that are currently playing in rep at the National Theatre's Olivier auditorium - DC Moore's Common and Yael Farber's Salomé - are both getting a lot of press lately, but not for much good reason. Disappointingly, two of the biggest shows in the NT's catalogue this Summer have been labelled as one-star failures and when I saw Salomé for myself the other week, I sadly had to agree.

This new play by frequent NT director Yael Farber is a reworking of the 19th century play by Oscar Wilde of the same name that looks at the biblical story of Salomé, stepdaughter of Herod Antipas, who requests the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter as a reward for dancing the dance of the seven veils. The purpose of this new version? It's clear that Farber wants to take the tale from being a biblical story of shame upon the titular character and instead, make a feminist statement about female power. Thankfully for Farber, that message is clear, but no matter how much of an advocate I am for female empowerment, it doesn't stop this play from being dry as desert sand.

Isabella Nefar as Salomé in Yael Farber's new adaptation

Perhaps the most painful part about this play is the one dimensional storyline. With no B-plot to the main biblical story, it's typical to assume that Farber's dialogue had to be good enough to make us care about Salomé's journey exclusively, but I just couldn't. Right from the off, the dialogue was inaccessible and uninteresting; a lot of the play is dedicated to political conversation between a group of the men while Salomé stands there in silence, passages of dialogue that were so boring and uninteresting, I could seriously feel myself falling asleep. This play unfortunately has a major storytelling problem, which is a real shame for a show that has so much potential.

You cannot, however, fault any other element of this production. The best part by far is the show's design by Susan Hilferty, transporting us to the centre of the revolution beautifully. If there's one thing that this show exudes, it's its aesthetics and ability to overpower you with its beauty. At one point in the play, huge curtains descend from the ceiling and the actors interact with them in an extremely powerful way. The same is to be said of when the sand falls from the sky and consumes Salomé, much like the show's poster artwork. They were two moments of the show that were so affecting and fantastic, they made me consider changing my opinion on the piece overall.

Olwen Fouéré as Nameless and the back of Isabella Nefar as the titular character, Salomé

The cast are sublime, too. While she didn't have much to say for a large portion of the piece, Isabella Nefar's performance as Salomé was the definition of subtle, but her frequent silence made her portrayal all the more calculated and sinister, in a positive way. Olwen Fouéré who played Nameless, on the other hand, gave a performance that completely contrasted Nefar's. She was loud, passionate and commanded the stage when she was on it; she was the star of the show for sure. The rest of the cast - who worked mostly as an ensemble - were fantastic as well.

While the cast and production value of this piece may well be fantastic (what else can you expect from a National Theatre production?), there is no stopping this piece from being a total yawn-fest. The plot is too one-dimensional and the dialogue is too inaccessible to make the play worthy of an hour and 45 minutes of your time, so uninteresting in fact that if there was an interval, I'm sure people would leave during it. It's a shame to see a play by someone as celebrated as Farber fall so flat on its face, but it's a retelling that simply doesn't work.

Salomé continues at the National Theatre, Olivier thru July 15th with tickets available here. The show is broadcast via NTLive on June 22nd, with information available here.

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