Plenty of pretty sand swirls around the stage of the National Theatre in director-writer Yaël Farber’s new play Salomé. But that’s not enough to conceal the barebones skeleton of this tepid costume drama.

Farber’s retelling of the biblical tale attempts to shine a fresh spotlight on its heroine, allowing Salomé to take ownership of her story, typically told with erotic relish by men. This new text, though, reaches audience through a fuzzy, far-away gauze. Farber writes with poetic but quasi-biblical language that keeps the characters hopelessly inaccessible to audiences: the narrator figure (Olwen Fouéré), some sort of older version of Salomé, speaks in numbing banalities like “I begin at the end” and “I am she who does not speak yet great is the multitude of my words.” Ramzi Choukair’s Iokanaan (we know him as John the Baptist) shouts platitudes in subtitled Arabic throughout.

For a play that purports to cast an old story in a new light, the script feels awfully like it could have come from any 1940s epic film adaptation. (Seeming references to the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict aren’t clear enough to carry weight.)

Thank goodness for all that sand, though – although she has to fight her text to do so, Farber has staged a visually mesmerising production, with plenty of support from stage and costume designer Susan Hilferty, with lighting by Tim Lutkin. When Salomé (Isabella Nefar plays the younger iteration) descends a ladder to visit Iokanaan’s cell far below the ground, the ensemble swells and surges behind her. Farber uses a single piece of cloth to devastating effect in a scene of anonymising sexual violence. And the ubiquity of the desert – sand substitutes for rainwater in a few stunning stage pictures – certainly contributes to the misty and mystical atmosphere.

A stunning visual in Salomé. Photo by Johan Persson

Best of all is Adam Cork’s hypnotic, omnipresent score, which combines traditional Arabic and Jewish chant, sung movingly by Lubana Al Quntar and Yasmin Levy. (An eventual shift into the operatic soprano range feels like an unintended Western music power grab.)

Still, these effective production elements don’t do enough to distract from the imprecision of the play itself. Also unhelpful for making sense of the disparate pieces: Paul Chahidi, miscast as a confusingly sportive Herod, and a weird momentary anachronism when two guards march on to the stage carrying rifles.

If the intention of Farber’s rewrite, as it would seem to be, is that Salomé wields her sexuality as a weapon to fuel a revolution against the oppressive Roman occupiers, that doesn’t quite come across clearly enough. I’m not sure if this Salomé, rife with nudity, ultimately objectifies its heroine’s body any less than productions past, even with the narrative framing device that prioritises her voice.

Song and desert storms aside, Salomé remains an enigma.

Salomé is playing at the National Theatre until 15 July. It will also be broadcast by NT Live on Thursday 22 June.