Salomé: A Restorative Perspective on a Biblical Tale
Salomé, the National Shakespeare Theater’s contribution to the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, is a haunting, poignant reinterpretation of the classic biblical story. Director Yael Farber’s central aim is to challenge our understanding of the title character (traditionally, the vengeful, seductive princess who demanded the head of John the Baptist) by framing events from her perspective. After all, despite Salomé’s enduring notoriety, we know almost nothing about her; she isn’t even mentioned by name in the Gospel. Might she have had ulterior, more virtuous motives for demanding John’s death? How has our erasure of women’s voices distorted our view of history?
To answer these questions, Farber expands beyond Salomé’s relatively brief appearance in the Bible, focusing on the events preceding and following her fateful encounter with “Iokannan” (aka John the Baptist). Set during the Roman occupation of Jerusalem, the play also foregrounds the complicated relationship between Rome, embodied by T. Rider Smith’s domineering Pontius Pilate, and the colonized Jewish population. We see the alliance between Pilate and the Jewish leader King Herod (Ismael Kanater) slowly deteriorate as Rome demands more money from an already impoverished Judea. Within this context, Farber recasts Iokannan as an imprisoned religious/political leader, kept alive against his will since Herod and the Romans know his death would incite insurgency.
In steps Salomé (Nadine Malouf), the entrancing stepdaughter of King Herod. Salomé finds a sense of purpose in Iokannan’s message of religious renewal, as well as a sense of liberation from her oppressive, abusive stepfather. She also knows her relation to Herod puts her in a unique position to spark revolution by finally securing Iokannan’s death. This is an incredibly complex role, one that Malouf plays with passion and nuance, even in the most emotionally harrowing scenes. Equally important is Olwen Fouéré as the “Nameless Woman,” the elderly version of Salomé who serves as the play’s narrator. Both actors imbue the character with an emotional strength and vulnerability completely absent from earlier versions of the story.
With regards to earlier versions, one of this play’s greatest strengths is its active engagement with other texts. The dialogue is a rich tapestry of other works, from Babylonian love ballads and the biblical Song of Solomon to Oscar Wilde’s own notorious adaptation of the Salomé tale. Wilde’s lines work especially well, lending the relationship between Salomé and Iokannan a feeling of doomed romance. Salomé does a lot of great work with language as well – Iokannan speaks entirely in Arabic, and the constant ringing of Hebrew religious chants create an air of solemn ritual.
Moreover, Salomé explicitly speaks back to contemporary politics. Farber is very consciously concerned with the way Ancient Roman imperialism mirrors America’s own Middle Eastern ventures. Much of the play’s language and imagery—from Pilate’s talk about his “civilizing mission” to a particularly brutal waterboarding scene—force the audience to deal with how little separates us from our ancient forbears.
Finally, Salomé’s magnificent stagecraft deserves special mention. Using very sparse materials—a rotating stage, a ladder, and carefully deployed natural elements like sand and water—set designer Susan Hilferty creates a mesmerizing, almost surreal world which elicited several audible gasps from the audience. Combined with the yellowy, dreamlike lighting and the strange, solemn movements of the actors, the entire production felt like some shadowy combination of aesthetic spectacle and ultra-formalized religious ritual. All this adds up to a truly exquisite piece of theater, one that leaves its audience equal parts awestruck, challenged, and renewed.
Salomé runs to November 8 at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St. NW. Tickets are $20-$118. Visit shakespearetheatre.org or call 202-547-1122.