You don’t have to read very far in the Bible to realise that Women Are Trouble. In the beginning, disobedient Eve gets mankind exiled from the Garden of Eden; towards the end, in the Book of Revelation, the Whore of Babylon presides over the evils of the world.
Yet one of the most notorious of these femmes fatales — the stepdaughter of Herod who demands, and gets, the head of John the Baptist — is not even named. It’s only thanks to a passing mention by the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus that Salome has become a byword for capricious, bloodthirsty femininity.
It’s possible that she has had a bad press. And this summer, theatregoers in Britain will have a chance to compare two very different interpretations of her story. One, performed from June by the Royal Shakespeare Company, will be Oscar Wilde’s fin-de-siècle vision of Salome as a deadly seductress. The other, which starts previewing next week, is a revisionist new version by the South African playwright and director Yaël Farber that seeks to rehabilitate the Judaean princess.
It will be the second outing for Farber’s Salomé, which she wrote two years ago for a festival in Washington, but has reworked for its London premiere. It was inspired in part, she tells me in a break between rehearsals, by a desire to wrest the story away from Wilde.
“When I read the Oscar Wilde, it was a springboard for me out of what I see as misogyny,” she says. “She is portrayed in that version as this lascivious, spoilt queen who desires the body of Jokanaan [as John the Baptist is called] and waxes lyrical for pages and pages about how beautiful he is in the most exquisite language, but ultimately her act is one of sexual vengeance.”
Farber, who is 46 and lives in Montreal, instead construes Salome as making an “extraordinary political gesture”, one intended to stir up John the Baptist’s followers against Roman rule. “There are multitudes of women who have contributed to revolutions whose stories are written out; I’m interested in raising that spectre,” Farber says. Her Salome is driven not by warped sensuality but by “political motivation in a highly politicised society”.
The play opens in Jerusalem with the discovery of female human remains beneath the likely location of the Second Temple, a religious faultline. Tensions rise over which community can rightly claim the mystery body and the action shifts to Roman Judea, under Pontius Pilate. This, it seems, is a land that has always been disputed, as have the narratives within it — a point underscored in Washington by the casting, with Farber seeking actors from politically divided countries, including Syria, Israel and Ireland. Four members of the original cast will appear in the production at London’s National Theatre.
American audiences were quick to draw parallels between Farber’s retelling and modern-day Israel, a reading encouraged by having Jokanaan speak Arabic and one of Salome’s eventual guards Hebrew. Critical reaction was largely partisan: The Weekly Standard, a conservative publication, was unimpressed, while the New York Review of Books and the Washington Post declared the work a triumph.
Farber trained as an actor but quickly switched to writing and directing; much of her work probes the power relationships between women and men. Mies Julie, her adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, which she set in South Africa’s Karoo region on Freedom Day 2012, reimagines Julie as a white farmer’s daughter and Jean as a black servant. For Nirbhaya, she used real-life accounts of sexual violence to tell the story of Jyoti Singh Pandey, who died of her injuries after being gang-raped on a Delhi bus in 2012. Farber’s most recent London production, also for the National, was Les Blancs, a reworking of Lorraine Hansberry’s unfinished play about African colonialism.
She says it was her upbringing in an all-white Johannesburg suburb that pushed her to see theatre as a force for change. During the apartheid years, the city’s Market Theatre “felt like the only place I was being told the brutal truth”. When Farber began to write in the 1990s, she tried to build on that tradition. “I created several works with performers and artists who were living the harshest realities of our country just emerging from apartheid,” she says. “My focus was, and in many ways remains, bearing witness.” Yet she is also anxious not to “de-sensualise” theatre, which must not become an activity for people to tick off “like vegetables you have to eat”.
Hers is a peripatetic life. After Salomé, Farber will be back in London at least twice more this year: to work with director Marianne Elliott (who quit the National Theatre to set up her own West End company) on a Sophocles adaptation, Oedipus To Antigone, and for a new project at the Donmar Warehouse that has yet to be announced. She is still toying with a King Lear set in the Middle East, although may end up directing rather than reworking the classic. “A man who is giving away his land to his three daughters? There is just loads to unpack there.”
Her core dilemma, she says, is balancing directing with bringing up her nine-year-old daughter, who lives with her in Montreal but remains behind with her ex-partner when she travels for work. “The two great loves of my life are never located in the same place. My commute to work is always an international flight.” But if success comes at a price, she is at pains not to disparage her good fortune. “When you direct, it’s — now, I want to use language that is not [that of] a victim — but it’s a lonely leaning.”
May 2-July 15, with a live broadcast on June 22. nationaltheatre.org.uk
Photograph: Gabby Laurent
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