The Royal Shakespeare Company has staged Oscar Wilde’s poetic one-act play at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. This is a good example of adventurous programming even if the result is not entirely successful.
Wilde retells the story of Salome, the stepdaughter of King Herod of Judea who lusts after her. And of her lust for John the Baptist who is imprisoned in a cistern in Herod’s palace. Salome is disgusted by Herod and John (called Iokanaan in the play), to whom she is fatally attracted, rejects her. The play then is a classic example of lust and unfulfilled desire that lead to tragic results.
Matthew Pidgeon and Matthew Tennyson in Salome. Photo: Isaac James. ©RSC
Gregory Doran, the Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company has decided to emphasize the homosexual aspects of the play, real or imagined, with some reason. Wilde was famously and tragically homosexual as is Doran, but happily in a different world. From 1533, we learn in the programme, when King Henry VIII passed The Buggery Act to 1861 sodomy was punishable by death in England. The programme gives us the frightful facts that between 1806 and 1861 a total of 8921 men were prosecuted for that act and 404 were executed. Homosexual acts were decriminalized in England and Wales only 50 years ago. The production of Salome takes cognizance of that anniversary.
Historical importance aside, the production provides little cause for celebration. It opens with Ilan Evans dressed like a gay hooker singing a song by Perfume Genius. Disclosure: I have not heard of either of them. We hear Genius’s music throughout and Evans appears in drag during the production. The dance of the seven veils becomes the dance of the table cloth with handkerchief-sized pieces of taffeta dropping from above on the audience during what seemed to me to be a teenage disco dance.
Salome is played by Matthew Tennyson, a slender young man dressed in a silk, diaphanous slip and wearing red high heels at times. He is referred to as “she” throughout but he does strip naked at one point so there is no doubt that he is a “he.”
Matthew Pidgeon (seated centre) and Company. Photo: James Isaac ©RSC
Matthew Pidgeon plays the corrupt, dictatorial and lecherous Herod while Suzanne Burden supplements the pairing of the two as his imperious wife Herodias. She was married to Herod’s brother but Salome proves to be no Hamlet.
A muscular Gavin Fowler plays the passionate moralist and stentorian critic of the royal couple. The Nazarenes, Jews, Soldiers and other relatively minor characters do not make much of an impression.
The set by Bretta Gerecke emphasizes the idea of ladders made of scaffolding. Salome climbs up a ladder as a symbol of her rising passion of Iokanaan or an escape from the lechery of Herod, I am not sure.
I am even less sure about the sexual crossfires. If Doran had changed Salome to a man and he developed an attraction for Iokanaan, there would be no issue. And we will get a revelation of Herod’s latent homosexuality which could add to the complexity of the drama. As presented, the production confused the situation without adding much more than confusion.Salome by Oscar Wilde continues in repertory until September 6, 2017 at the Swan Theatre, Waterside, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England. Box Office: 0844 800 1110. www.rsc.org.uk