Salomé – Southwark Playhouse, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writer: Oscar Wilde, adapted by Ricky Dukes

Director: Ricky Dukes

When it comes to Oscar Wilde’s stage work, many people will think only of his drawing room comedies, such as The Importance of Being Earnest or Lady Windermere’s Fan. And so he is often dismissed as the architect of glib, wryly comic one-liners, although others will point to The Picture of Dorian Gray as a hint of some darker, more nuanced and even vicious sides to the writer’s work.

Salomé is an altogether murkier proposition, especially in this version first staged by Lazarus Theatre in 2019. First written and performed in Paris, its English translation was initially banned from performance here – nominally because the Lord Chamberlain’s office prohibited stage depictions of Biblical characters, but given the highly sexualised charge of Wilde’s writing, that feels like it may have been a convenient cop-out.

Director Ricky Dukes adapts Wilde’s work, paring down the original dramatic personæ from 13 (plus an unspecified number of “slaves of Salomé”) to a more manageable six, while ensuring that any shock value audiences in 1890s Paris may have felt is replicated in 2021 South London.

Obsessive love is the order of the day here. Omi Mantri’s young soldier, having laid eyes upon Salomé (Fred Thomas), can speak of nothing else even though the target of his obsession refuses to acknowledge him. His impassioned pleas contrast with Prince Plockey as the prophet Jokanaan (known to our modern ears as John the Baptist), imprisoned in a well and who spends his time on the Southwark’s traverse staging pacing around designer Sorcha Corcoran’s set, a golden catwalk-cum-dinner table.

As the soldier obsesses over Salomé, so does Salomé over Jokanaan, who likewise refuses to engage. But then there is Herod, second husband to Salomé’s mother Herodias (Pauline Babula). There is a hint of Hamlet in this familial love triangle, albeit one in which Thomas’s forthright, self-aware Salomé would brook none of the dithering of the Danish prince. There is also less for Babula to work with as Herodias than she could have as Gertrude. In her hands, though, the queen’s often-silent presence feels anything but passive.

Jamie O’Neill gives us Herod as a handsome predator, whose own appetite for Salomé seems to have many motives, from sexual to political and beyond. With Salomé played by (and played as) a man, there is an inherent queerness to the whole reading of this version of play; but it also helps to emphasis the universality of his venal desire. He is mirrored by Thomas as Salomé, a young man in full knowledge of his sexual power and conditioned by a life of royalty to use it to its fullest.

The whole work is a shocking, beautifully visual feast. Salomé’s final scene, as he determines to kiss Jokanaan even after his execution, tops a production whose heady visuals and hypnotically repetitive dialogue deliver a dark, brooding work of art. One feels the darker side of Wilde, so far removed from Earnest, would approve.

Continues until 11 September

The Reviews Hub Score

Shocking, beautifully visual feast

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