The Olivier describes Salomé by Yaël Farber as a ‘new’ play. Not quite. It premièred in Washington a couple of years ago. And I bet Farber was thrilled at the chance to direct this revival at the National’s biggest and best equipped stage. She approaches the Olivier’s effects department like a pyromaniac in a firework factory. She wants everything to go off at once. And it does. Goatherds yodel. Bells bong. Flutes warble. Birds parp. A revolving conveyor belt twirls spare actors around the stage in dizzy circles. Chord surges swell and fade on the soundtrack. Kneeling shepherdesses sift mounds of soap powder into mahogany salad bowls. Overhead, the prog-rock spotlights pick out the figures of Herod and Pilate, both wearing pound-shop kaftans, as they shout bombastic platitudes at each other. A naked unshod dancer spends 20 minutes labouring across the stage in slow motion. Any cast member not involved in a scene has to throw a pose, artfully lit, like an extra from a Titian epic.
It goes on and on. But it goes nowhere. The characters are impenetrable abstractions. Herod stands for rapacity, Salomé for innocence, John the Baptist for righteous defiance. Farber’s lingo is as remote and pompous as a bad Victorian translation of Sophocles. ‘I am she whose hour to speak has come. Too long I have waited,’ says Salomé. The Baptist, who might be a focus of sympathy, rants in Arabic like an outpatient or a hate preacher. His words are translated on a rear screen that is half-obscured by a clunking great ladder, centre-stage. Someone should fix that.
The show’s chief flavour is sado-erotic titillation. Salomé is raped early on. Then she’s stripped naked, very slowly, and carefully bathed and dried. She then puts on a muslin nightie and performs the kind of soft-porn lap dance favoured by online starlets seeking attention from trolls. The Baptist is also paraded for masochistic thrills. His chiselled body is nude throughout except for a string loincloth dangling between his thighs like a snooker pocket. Before his execution, he’s roughed up gratuitously by his captors. I looked away during the beheading but I caught a glimpse of handsome lighting and swags of gorgeous cloth dramatically gathered and layered. Why didn’t I look properly? Because I’m well adjusted. I have no desire to watch hostages being abused and murdered, even in make-believe. The idea that ‘art’ absolves the audience, or the creators, of sadistic voyeurism doesn’t convince me. These are torture scenes done with the trite slickness of a Vogue photo shoot.
Brecht’s Galileo is a mixture of modern dress and fancy dress. The audience sprawl on cushions beneath a starry dome overhead. Galileo is played by Brendan Cowell, who wears scruffy jeans and a T-shirt depicting an astronaut being tugged heavenwards by coloured balloons. His Aussie accent completes the outdoor groove and the play unfolds like a summer camp for clever eight-year-olds hosted by a geography teacher on speed. The atmosphere is engaging and friendly. The play’s opening scenes are among Brecht’s finest achievements. We watch as Galileo points his telescope at the sky and obliterates two millennia of Aristotelian certainty. The moon emits no light. Jupiter is not a star but a world like our own. And its moons have their own orbits. This last observation destroyed the theory that the heavens move in harmony and that the stars are fixed by crystalline structures to the perimeter of the cosmos. When Jupiter’s moons are in motion, why don’t the crystals smash? Galileo’s sense of wonder and excitement are captured beautifully here.
Then the subject changes. The astronomer confronts the Church and the play slithers into pastiche. So does the production. Catholic grandees are dressed in cheap paper costumes. The Doge of Venice and his court wear red fezes as though they were at a Tommy Cooper convention. Brecht must bear most of the blame. Writing in the 1930s he set out to ridicule an ecclesiastical hierarchy whose power was on the wane. Making fat cardinals in crimson hats look silly is a feeble objective. And if Brecht wants to equate the Church and the Nazis as blinkered exponents of a moribund ideology he doesn’t quite pull it off.
The play slows further in the second half as he tries to dramatise the consequences of Galileo’s recantation. For this he has to dabble in imponderables. He must explain how much the scientific development of Europe was impaired by the Church’s refusal to accept the Copernican cosmos. And having quantified this vast and nebulous deficit he must humanise it and put it on stage. Both feats are beyond Brecht. But instead of altering his design he simply pads out the second act with set-piece debates and high-minded rants about authority and defiance. The youthful audience registered this show as a hit. And it’s not bad. But bail out at the interval.