“I am I am
wife & husband
whore & holy one
mother & daughter
honoured & scorned…” ¹
A first veil of opaque white-grey static, projected onto a gauze screen that covered the entire stage, shudders almost imperceptibly at me as I take my seat in the Victoria Theatre. I had to keep my eyes wide open to discern its slight movement. Or was that something I’d imagined all on my own?
This interplay between virtual and physical reality is brought into focus in project SALOME, an original multidisciplinary offering conceptualised by director Ong Keng Sen. Featuring an international team of collaborators, the production is a reimagining of a character that has drifted in and out of obscurity through the ages (as outlined in my previous article here). Salome has gained notoriety in the literary world as the princess who danced in exchange for the head of the man she loved, famously described in Oscar Wilde’s eponymous play – in which her performance was immortalised as the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’. However, she is rarely offered the opportunity to speak for herself, and project SALOME seeks to redress that imbalance. The project is a culmination of three distinct trajectories based on the historical figure: the pre-show social media performance of Seah Loh Mei and the resurrection of the Head of Salome (both played by Janice Koh), alongside the construction of Bolbola as embodied by Michael(a) Daoud.
The curtain of static fades into transparency, and the white noise dissipates to reveal what’s hidden behind the screen. The Head of Salome is perched on a majestic sculpture of a dress, made of cascading sheets of paper. It is dwarfed by Heman Chong’s towering installation of geometric cardboard structures that seem to emanate from the dress itself. As she recounts the events leading up to the decapitation she demands, we realise that she is surrounded by multiple cameras from various angles. They provide the live video feed that translates her visage to the projection screen – a magnified beheading that both amplifies and distorts her vulnerability.
“I want to kiss your mouth”. Image Credit: Debbie Y. Courtesy of Arts House Limited.
This disembodiment is paralleled in a documentary film about Bolbola, a drag persona created by Michael(a) Daoud in response to the tension they experience within themselves, and the world. Shot in Berlin, it treads the fine line between fiction and autobiography, as the audience is made privy to the artist’s harsh journey as an asylum seeker, which prompted Bolbola’s genesis. Having to amass fake identities in search of a space for your own is a pained conflict that I particularly resonated with as a queer individual.
What’s behind the scenes? Image Credit: Debbie Y. Courtesy of Arts House Limited.
Both narratives run tangentially, before meeting in a subversive climax. The former readies herself for an invisible dance as the latter vogues², amidst textiles of red, purple, and blue. The execution is ordered, the heads fall.
Reclamation, transformation, and the veil(s) of perception—the phenomena and the noumena, what we know and can’t—are themes that were explored effectively by Ong Keng Sen in the production’s vision. Our access to Bolbola and the Head of Salome was restricted to what the cameras allowed us to see. Our relationship to the characters on stage was distanced, voyeuristic almost; rendering us powerless spectators as we watched them peel layers off the human psyche.
We watched these exorcisms, set against Kaffe Matthews’ guttural soundscapes, which I can only describe as a manifestation of an orchestral animatronic forest. Throaty bass lines lashed through my spine as I listened to The Head of Salome command the voices in her story, tilting to face a certain camera with every change in persona. It is a testament to Janice Koh’s utmost commitment to the role, as she seamlessly veers between despair and feverish joy. I was left wondering if the visual spectacle of the projections mapped on stage had overshadowed the emotional clarity of her monologue in some parts.
The documentary film turned out to be a highlight of the show – the deconstruction of identity was demonstrated through a series of transcendent ritualisations that mirrored the process of self-determination. A domestic gathering between acquaintances is juxtaposed with an abstracted ritual of photographic introspection. The past, present, and future conflates in monochromatic portraits of past selves, a foetal body submerged in water, and Michael(a) Daoud’s tender embracing of an eerily lifelike bust of Bolbola, whilst reciting, in Arabic, a hymn to the Ancient Egyptian goddess Isis that reaffirmed the empowering duality of human nature.
It would be intriguing to see these interactions between the Head of Salome and Bolbola / Michael(a) taken further within the show’s dramaturgy, and to observe how these acts of myth-building could be parsed more equally between these reconstructions of the original Salome. Additionally, the perspective of Seah Loh Mei seems to float above the complexity, not quite tethered to the overall picture. She does not make an appearance till the very end, in a short video of a hand merely scrolling through her Instagram timeline. Could there be a different way of weaving through all three narrative threads with the same fabric?
A self-cleaning ritual. Image Credit: Debbie Y. Courtesy of Arts House Limited.
As Janice emerges from the screen to applause, she leaves a headless mannequin behind. The set immediately feels like a mausoleum – a memorial to a figure whose ghost seems inaccessible yet completely relatable in equal measure. Oppressive patriarchies exist still, as war does; it’s a sobering thought that nothing much has changed since antiquity. Provocatively authentic, project SALOME is a larger-than-life crossing of time and space that proposes ways in which we can all confront the gazes that seek to control us as individuals. It is a shrine to the façades we wear, the parts of ourselves that warrant worship, and a befitting addition to the existing oeuvre for our time.
As the mantra continues:
“I am I am
knowledge & ignorance
shame & boldness
strength & fear
war & peace
Give heed to me.
I am the utterance of my name…”
¹Inspired by The Thunder: Perfect Mind, possibly a hymn to the goddess Isis, 1st - 2nd century AD.
Robinson, James McConkey. The Nag Hammadi Library in English: The Definitive New Translation of the Gnostic Scriptures, Complete in One Volume. E.J. Brill. 1996. pp. 297.
²“Vogue is a dance genre inspired by model poses inside the covers of Vogue magazine, but also influenced by Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and gymnastic moves. The personae adopted by voguers were often a coded parody of white femininity, both glorifying and subverting ideals of beauty, sexuality and class.” https://www.vogue.in/culture-and-living/content/what-is-voguing-and-why-is-it-an-important-part-of-queer-identity.