By Oscar Wilde
Directed by Jamie Lloyd
Venue: Richmond Theatre
Date: Wednesday 26th May 2010
We saw a production of this many years ago at the Barbican (1989). That one was directed by Steven Berkoff, who also played Herod, and the design was strongly black and white art deco with everyone except John the Baptist in evening dress. The cast moved in a smooth and stately manner, almost slow motion, and when sitting, they were almost completely still. I didn’t find it Wilde’s most enjoyable work, but it was interesting to see it staged, and there was one gem that has stayed with me. When Herod was trying to persuade Salome to take some reward other than the head of John the Baptist, he went through a long, long list of all the riches, especially the jewels, which he owned, to tempt her to change her mind. At one point, he mentioned two large emeralds, and from the look Herodias gave him at that moment, it was clear she hadn’t been brought up to speed on those particular items. Until now. It was a very subtle reaction, given that none of the actors were moving much physically, but it spoke volumes.
This was another stylised production, but today’s theme was the oh-so-fashionable industrial grunge. We both hope that directors and designers get past this phase as soon as possible. It works sometimes, but so often it just seems to be out of kilter with the play, and this was one of those times. They even used the cliché of a gangsta rap, done by one of the white boys, the lad who was attracted to Salome.
The stage was almost filled by a raised platform, which made it difficult for us to see the action properly (no complaints from us), and it was surrounded by lighting racks – like we need to be reminded we’re watching a theatrical performance. The ‘action’ started early, with actors coming on stage one at a time and prowling round, climbing the lighting racks, etc. Presumably they knew what this was meant to be about, but nobody told us. It went on so long, I started to giggle as the thought went through my head that this might be all there was. One hour and twenty-six minutes of prowling actors. Then there was a loud noise, and two blasts of steam shot in the air. Unfortunately, from where I sat, this just looked like two of the cast had done a special effects fart, so again I had the giggles.
It took me a while to settle into the performance, but after about ten minutes I started to enjoy myself a bit. The grunge disappeared into the background, and the dialogue was coming across clearly. Salome came on and pouted her way around the stage for a bit, finally demanding to speak to John, or Iokanaan as they were calling him. Her behaviour was a bit peculiar throughout this performance, very twitchy and nervy and with lots of sexual posturing. I haven’t spent much time with drug addicts, so I don’t know if that’s what they were trying to suggest, but it’s the only explanation I can come up with. Admittedly, Herod’s court had a reputation for decadence. Trouble is, if you reduce the royal court to a bunch of boozy cokeheads, it takes away from the effect of their actions.
Still, she gets some quality time with John, which she mostly spends blowing hot and cold about his physical attractiveness. I couldn’t make her out at all in this section – was she scared, was she aroused, was she angry? I haven’t a clue. Her promise that she would kiss John’s mouth was mildly chilling, but then we knew the story ahead of time.
Herod and Herodias turn up, and this is where I found sleep getting the better of me. I grasped that Herod was infatuated with Salome, and that Herodias wasn’t happy about that, and then I mercifully missed a chunk, coming to shortly before Herod asked Salome to dance for him, which she agreed to do despite her mother’s objections. Steve has confirmed I didn’t miss much.
Steve and I have pondered this version of Salome’s dance, and we’ve come to the conclusion that it was done this way to show just how much Herod was obsessed by Salome. Not only did he jerk off to her pitiful attempt at dancing (we assume he was miming) but for some reason we are probably too old to understand, Salome had done herself up in a black gauze dress, pink undies, pink makeup and a vivid pink wig. The beatbox was fine, though her attempt to turn the raising of the aerial into a seductive movement left a lot to be desired. She jerked her way unevenly between bits of a dance routine, finally going for a strip (forget the tease), and only kept her panties partially on because Herod had already come in his pants. Like I say, we weren’t complaining about the restricted view.
After this, she claimed the head of John as her reward, and after Herod’s offered her everything else he can think of, he orders his men to give her what she wants. Herodias was delighted that her daughter held her ground – no reaction here to the jewels, but then I think that part was cut. As the stage lights were turned out, the final image, held in the light of several torches, was of Salome kissing the lips of the severed head. Gruesome.
As usual, the performances were fine, we just didn’t care for the way this design choice appeared to have been used for no good reason. I also found the high-pitched voice of Herod off-putting. Steve said it reminded him of the childish gods in the first Dido he saw many years ago; he didn’t like that one, either.
© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me