The Theatreguide.London Review
Olivier Theatre Spring-Summer 2017
This new play written and directed by Yael Farber offers an alternative reading of a familiar quasi-biblical story that colours it with both mundane politics and otherworldly mysticism. It is evocative, provocative and not especially clear.
It is fashionable in some theological circles to read Jesus's ministry as being as political as religious, part of a cluster of open or covert threats to Roman rule in Judea. Farber applies the same thinking to the stories of Salome and John the Baptist.
Starting from the discovery that almost everything we think we know about Salome, even her name, is a much later elaboration on the basic fact that a woman was somehow involved in John's death, Farber realises that who the woman actually was is less interesting than the fact that everyone around her had to define her in ways that met their needs.
For convenience Farber accepts the premise that she was Herod's stepdaughter and the object of his desire, but draws the line at her name. The play is narrated and commented on by the long-dead spirit who insists on calling herself The Nameless One.
She shows us that the Romans, represented here by Pilate, saw any Jew who gathered a following as a revolutionary and threat to Roman rule. To prevent John's death from making him a mob-inspiring martyr, they had to deflect attention to an evil but distracting femme fatale.
As a Jew who had sold out to serve Rome against his own people, Herod wanted some sensual rewards. John himself was quite aware that his ministry had a political side in uniting the Jews through reinvigorated faith, and in the play he sees this beautiful woman's power as a metaphor for Jerusalem, something like France's Marianne.
And what of the girl herself, represented onstage by a second, largely silent actress? Here Farber is somewhat reticent, preferring to keep some things about her unknowable.
And therein lies the hole that keeps the play from complete success, because Farber's mysteries tip over into mystification, obscurity and lack of communication for their own sake.
The playwright plays with us, promising clarifications she does not deliver and sometimes hiding behind quasi-biblical and self-consciously poetic dialogue, while John (but no one else) speaks only Hebrew throughout, requiring surtitles.
And as her own director, Farber fills the stage with clarity-clouding effects, from literal mists and smoke, through the almost uninterrupted musical keening of women, to striking visual imagery and actual biblical quotations that can be more distracting than communicative.
Olwen Fouere is an actress with the power and presence to invest The Nameless One with both authority and a mystical aura, while Isabella Nefar gives the younger woman sensual beauty and ultimate unknowability.
Ramzi Choukair can't do much with John as the language barrier and our constant need to look away from him to read the titles prove too great a handicap, while Lloyd Hutchinson's somewhat simpler Pilate – gruff military man who sees things in black and white and is annoyed when the real world isn't that clear – is the easiest to grasp and know.
In answering some questions but not others, and in giving in a little too often to the temptation to be deliberately puzzling, Yael Farber creates a play and production that offer the audience a battle between fascination and frustration, with the latter either winning or coming a close enough second to limit the ultimate success.
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