There aren't too many fixed rules for making theatre. Thank goodness for that. But in my experience, an alarm bell starts to tinkle when the writer of a show and the director are one and the same person.
This is the case with the National Theatre's new production of Salome, written by the very talented director Yael Farber. I've seen three plays directed by her -- a stunning South African version of Strindberg's Miss Julie in 2013, a highly original revival of Arthur Miller's The Crucible at the Old Vic, and last year a richly rewarding production on the National's Olivier stage of Les Blancs by Lorraine Hansberry. For her Mies Julie, Farber rewrote most of Strindberg's dialogue, but kept the essence and structure of his play.
Salome is a different matter. While Farber seems to have used Oscar Wilde's Salome as a starting point, the version on stage in the Olivier is clearly the work of her own imagination from beginning to end. It's an ambitious attempt to restage a slender story from the Bible and turn it into an enduring modern myth with multiple themes -- colonialism and the subjugation of women being just two. Unfortunately, it fails to hit the target for a number of reasons. For me the main one is the absence of a critical director prepared to tell the playwright that certain lines and scenes just don't work. Farber's text is clunky and awkward. In the hands of a poet, this story might have been turned into something magical, but the production I saw at yesterday's matinee only briefly caught my imagination. I was soon looking at my watch -- always a bad sign.
Farber divides the role of Salome into two, with Olwen Fouere taking most of the dialogue as the character dubbed 'Nameless' and the much younger Isabella Nefar acting out the climax of the play as Salome "so-called". Ramzi Choukar, a French-Syrian actor, is impressive as Iokanaan (John the Baptist), but the only actor who really turns his part into a recognisably human character is the always excellent Paul Chahidi as Herod.
I have no objections to the way Farber chooses to upend the traditional version of Salome's story and turn it inside out; the problem is that most of the first half of the play is very slow and very static, with the actors declaiming their lines. If it were not for the vigorous use of the Olivier's revolve, the result would be even more static. After a few minutes I closed my eyes and recalled the classic riposte of Julie Walters' character in Educating Rita, when asked how she would stage Peer Gynt: "Put it on the radio". In the second half (there is no interval and the show lasts around 100 minutes) the play becomes a lot more visual, with the death of Iokanaan and the triumph of Salome. It has moments of spectacular grandeur, but they come too late.
The question I'm tempted to ask is why Greek classical dramas succeed, despite being static and declamatory, while this one does not. I think part of the answer is that Greek dramas benefit from fewer characters, and from the explanatory presence of a chorus, who gives the audience a different angle on the action and the characters and a sense of perspective.
Putting on this play, originally staged at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington DC, is a gamble by the National's artistic director Rufus Norris. I'm not going to criticise him for that, and I still think Farber is a wonderful theatre maker. But I think she should stick to directing rather than writing.