Salome, by Oscar Wilde, Richmond Theatre, May 2010

Oscar Wilde originally wrote this play in French, for the great actress Sarah Bernhardt. He translated it into English, but during rehearsals in London in 1892, with Sarah Bernhardt in the title role, the Lord Chamberlain’s office banned it. John the Baptist could not be portrayed on stage, and it was nearly forty years before the first public performance took place in Britain in 1931. In the meantime it was staged in Paris in 1896, and Richard Strauss turned it into an opera in 1905, using a reduced version of Wilde’s play. The opera, which cuts many of Herod’s lines and makes Salome the main character, is now much better known than Wilde’s play, so I was excited to see the original text performed.

Zawe Ashton as Salome

This production by Jamie Lloyd for the Headlong Theatre Company is vividly modern, with the music for Salome’s dance coming from a ghetto blaster. Everything is played at top intensity, but I would have preferred the introspective moments to be taken more calmly. For example at the end of her penultimate speech, Salome says, “I know that you would have loved me, and the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death”. This was delivered far too rapidly by Zawe Ashton as if it were the mere recitation of a jingle repeated every day at school, which was presumably the director’s intention since her acting earlier in the play was admirable. Was the director going for a final scene of banality, and if so why did that not fit with the rest of the production?

Con O’Neill portrayed Herod as a bisexually vicious ruler in red lipstick, high on drink and marginally out of control. When Salome dances he masturbates, as do several of the other cast members, but their excitement is a bit unconvincing. The person who really was convincing was Jaye Griffiths as Herodias. She showed a presence off the words, as well as on them, and made it entirely believable that she had married her husband’s brother and has a daughter whom he desires. Without Strauss’s music we need some indication that he really does desire Salome, but such desire was only noticeable by its absence. The appearance of Seun Shote as Iokanaan (John the Baptist) was striking, but could have been stronger if his voice had been clearer and more commanding, as I’m used to in Strauss’s operatic version. However the acting of the cast was very good, particularly since Herod’s guards had to double up as the Jews who argue about scriptural prophecy. Vyelle Croom as Naaman, who goes into the cistern to behead the Baptist, was particularly strong, with a physically threatening nature well suited to the unpleasantly dark surroundings of Herod’s court.

Cast featuring Herod and Herodias

The lighting by Jon Clark was darkly effective, the costumes by Soutra Gilmour were good, but oddly the stage was raised so that those in the first dozen rows could neither see the actors’ feet nor, more importantly, the hole from which John the Baptist emerged. The production was geared to showing visceral sexuality, with Salome putting her hand inside her knickers and pressing it towards Iokanaan’s mouth. This was when she first meets him, but I’d prefer a more cautious approach so that she has somewhere to go later, instead of relapsing into a banal repetition of lines. This play should build tension and sexuality gradually as the hot moonlit evening in the Middle East wears on, and the teenage Salome gradually heats up to boiling point. I’d rather it were that way than having everything at simmering intensity from the beginning, until falling short at the end.

This production started life at the Curve Theatre in Leicester, and after Richmond it tours to the following: Oxford Playhouse, June 1–5; Northern Stage, Newcastle, June 8–12; Theatre Royal Brighton, June 15–17; Hampstead Theatre, London, June 17–22. The powerful operatic version by Richard Strauss is playing at the Royal Opera House, July 3–16.

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