In literature, art and history, we’ve come to know Salome, the New Testament princess, daughter of Herod, as a sensuous and lustful femme fatale. In the Christian text, she is nameless, but comes down to us in history through Roman Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, who documented a version of her then — and still — shocking demand to behead John the Baptist.
Through the ages artists have depicted her on canvas, in sculpture, in drama and opera as a seductress who uses her sexuality to gain advantage. A new vision of Salome, one with feminist and political ramifications, particularly where the Middle East conflict is concerned, is on stage through Nov. 8 in a world premiere production by the Shakespeare Theatre Company, another installment in the visionary Women’s Voices Theater Festival.
South African-born international director Yael Farber has forced new life into this ancient tale. She doesn’t ignore the blood lust that has made it attractive fodder, whether for playwright Oscar Wilde or opera composer Richard Strauss, among others. But she rethinks nearly everything about the lurid tale, overturning the perspective of its traditional point of view.
Farber noted in the program that in biblical accounts, Salome is a woman with no name. Here, she not only gives the woman a name, but also a voice. The tale is told by an older Salome looking back on that singular episode in her life as a young, virginal princess, beholden to her lascivious stepfather.
The Shakespeare’s Lansburgh stage is nearly bare to start, its back wall and wings visible, and at first a few roughhewn furnishings — a lengthy banquet table and some chairs — greet the audience as the actors stand attentively off to the side in this Salome. The period costumes — leather-like breastplates for soldiers, rich caftans for the Roman overseer, elaborate head coverings and tallis-like shawls, phylactery-like leather arm bindings for the Jewish high priests of the Temple in Jerusalem, tattered garments for the Nameless Woman and a provocative breast plate and necklace for Salome — bring color and movement to the sparseness of the gaping black stage. Set and costume designer Susan Hilferty (known for her glamorous work on Broadway’s Wicked) and lighting designer Donald Holder symbiotically fashion this ancient and contentious world using old fashioned theatrical techniques — voluminous swathes of cloth, simple wood set pieces, trap doors, pools of water, stage floor turntables, falling sand and rain — thankfully avoiding the overused tendency to trick up new productions with video and lighting techniques.
Farber reappropriates the character as a woman with her own mindset and experiences, and Salome becomes an icon anew, fit for contemporary feminists. Historically, as we know from Josephus — born Joseph ben Mattityahu — Salome was a member of Herod’s court. Her mother, Herodias, divorced, then married her first-husband’s brother, which was an affront to many of the more zealous Hebrews of the time. An ascetic zealot, Iokanaan haMatpil, or John the Baptist, condemned Herod, who imprisoned him in a desert cistern in Machaerus, overlooking the Dead Sea. Salome is enticed by John’s voice. When called to dance before the court, Salome exacts a drunken promise from her stepfather for whatever she wishes. Her infamous demand: the head of John the Baptist delivered on a silver charger.
In Farber’s Salome, this is no longer just a story of sex, incest, blood lust and exacting revenge, but one of warring political forces. There are the priests of the Jewish temple, the tax collector, the Roman overlord, each asserting their own measures of interest and levels of power, to reap their monetary reward: taxes from their people. John the Baptist (Ramzi Choukair) is part prophet, part rebel — the outsider — imprisoned but kept alive, Herod believes, because otherwise a Jewish insurrection would crush the status quo.
But most interesting and challenging is Farber’s use of Hebrew and Arabic texts from the Bible and other sources, including ancient Sumerian songs to the goddess Ishtar and the Song of Songs from the Torah.
She metes out these passages and multilingual phrases with a fully political purpose. John the Baptist, the revolutionary, speaks Arabic, while the Temple Jews and others call on snatches of Hebrew. Young Salome doesn’t speak at all. Barefoot, her mane of black hair wild, her eyes intense, she is not the actor in much of the drama until her moment at court — her dance (and, yes, though the seven veils aren’t historically accurate, they have come to us artistically, and Farber with Hilferty heighten the drama with exquisite staging).
Shocking for some may be the full nudity in an exquisitely beautiful scene where John recites the Song of Songs in Arabic as Salome is de-robed, loosed from her bindings. The poetry of the Arabic and English heard side by side and the baring of Salome’s body have ramifications for her female power and sexuality that enliven the multivalent dialogues the play is wrestling with. Equally as discomfiting for others may be the inferences Farber makes in equating this ancient Roman-Hebrew conflict with the present-day Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When this was booked more than a year earlier, no one could have predicted the current unrest on the streets of Jerusalem, so needless to say, these elements will strike a sensitive nerve.
But Farber has in ways both large and small collected texts, ideas, songs, music, poetry and narratives across cultures and millennia to tell a story that until the 20th century has little been told as the woman’s story. With Olwen Fourere — her gray hair flowing, her powerful delivery hair-raising — as the Nameless Woman, an older Salome, countering Nadine Malouf’s fearless young Salome. These two leading women assert their strength to inveigh the singular story of Salome.
Finding the layers, the recesses, the poetry immersed in Farber’s new vision of Salome for the 21st century is as much a psycho-emotional excavation of the terrain of mind, body and spirit. For the open-minded, adventurous viewer, this is the play to see this fall. n
Salome, Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St. NW, Washington. For ticket information, call (202) 547-1122 or visit www.ShakespeareTheatre.org.