The Perspective of Live Theatre

Last night I watched a new play that is streaming on National Theatre at Home. Salomé. A visually and audibly stunning, code-switching performance with Arabic, Hebrew and English. The story is told with repeating poetic text and some dialogue – a retrospective narrated by “nameless” – which puzzles me since not only is nameless obviously Salomé, but the play itself takes her name as its title, so I keep wondering what I am missing.

If I understand the concept of the play, Salomé is presented as a martyr herself – martyring herself by subverting Herod Atipas’ efforts to keep John the Baptist alive. She ignites the tinderbox by allowing herself to be the vehicle for his martyrdom. So the young woman was – not nameless but – not seen for who she was. Political, not lustful. Independent of her mother’s will or whims.

I actually love the premise. Bit puzzled by the Herod-as-Jesus tableau of the last-supper that is impossible not to associate with the staging of Herod’s feast. In this play, Herod asks Salomé to dance, but she doesn’t really dance (thank god). Certainly not the dance of the 7 veils. I am fine with this since it isn’t even mentioned in the bible and the play already walks a fine line of portraying misogyny and surreptitiously feeding it – as does every play that tackles these kinds of issues. The climax of her dance, with the actress holding and moving an almost incomprehensible amount of fabric in her fists, waving heavy curtains that cover the entire stage wall (oh, the colors and textures of this production are so beautiful it’s almost painful), unequivocally falls on the side of right.

The rape scene was probably effective when seen from the stalls and balcony. Herod, kneeling behind Salomé, pulls a veil over her face – she leans forward screaming as he pulls back and thrusts his pelvis forward. The problem was, filmed as almost a close-up shot, it was impossible not to see the Scream mask of popular culture and the whole scene took on a weirdly and certainly unintentional and inappropriate perspective.

I am not thinking about this as a review, but was thinking in terms of theater and filmed theater and the possibilities and what is lost with forced perspectives. I saw this last night after an interesting mentor session with a young director who was describing her directing concept to me before presenting it to her cast. The thing was, it wasn’t a theatrical directing concept – it was a kind of storyboard she was working from. I hadn’t been able to put my finger on it until I had watched Salomè.

And it brought me back to writing. What the playwright’s job is vs. the director vs. the actor. How collaborative theater (isn’t always but) can be.

I was reminded again recently how the playwright’s stage directions are followed in the States, where they are so often disregarded entirely in Europe. How much of my mental storyboard can I squeeze into spoken text? How much to I want to? Do I even need to mental storyboard when I am writing?

The text in Salomé is poetry. It repeats often, as do some scenes. Like a song’s chorus. The dialogue rarely involves people talking to one another – but rather performing for one another – as is appropriate for this story/production.

Yeah. I am grateful for the National Theatre’s streaming services. But it is not the same thing as live theater. The audience has a choice and is active in any stage production.

No wonder we are seeing so many productions where they use film for close ups to force the perspective. The extreme of auteur theater? The far end of the spectrum for audience participation?

There went the timer.


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