Salomé – The Swan, Stratford on Avon

Writer: Oscar Wilde

Director: Owen Horsley

Reviewer:  James Garrington

When Oscar Wilde’s lyrical one-act drama was written in 1892 it was banned as blasphemous while still in rehearsal. It wasn’t until four years later and a French translation that it was actually performed in Paris, not making a public appearance in Britain until 1931 when the ban was lifted.

The story is quite well known – Herod’s step-daughter Salome encounters an imprisoned John the Baptist (here a character called Iokanaan) and becomes infatuated with him, but he rejects her. Then when Herod tries to coerce Salome into dancing for him, she first refuses but then agrees, on condition that Herod will grant her one wish…

This bold new production is described as marking 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK. According to Director Owen Horsley, it is designed to “focus on the ambiguity of gender” and so we have the role of Salome being played by a man. The result is that a play that was, as originally written, charged with eroticism is here stripped of much of that. Matthew Tennyson (Salome) comes across as less gender-ambiguous and more asexual, thanks to a costume consisting of a shapeless and colourless slip and black underpants. Similarly, the Dance of the Seven Veils is completely devoid of any eroticism and isn’t even really a dance – more a set of jerky movements to music.

So the production contrives to remove some of the sexuality from places you would expect to find it, yet leaves it elsewhere, such as in Herod’s fixation on a male Salome – the only clear nod in the whole production towards marking the decriminalisation of homosexuality. There’s music, written by Perfume Genius and sung by Ilan Evans, which has an oblique gay theme yet which adds to the incongruity of the piece as much as it enhances it.  It comes across as a series of different ideas that don’t necessarily come together into a coherent whole – all somewhat confused.

A strong cast works hard to bring it all to life. Tennyson’s Salome is initially almost as nondescript as his costume, before he turns into a petulant child, building into a deep obsession for Iokanaan with a final scene that becomes quite powerful and poignant. Suzanne Burden is a nicely vindictive Herodias, revelling in her glee at Salome’s determination to get what she wants, while Matthew Pidgeon’s Herod gives a nicely-judged transformation from slightly tipsy cajoling through to dread of his possible fate if he lets Salome have her way.

The production contains full-frontal male nudity and other themes that may not be to everyone’s taste and is something you will most likely either love or hate. Either way, it will probably have you discussing it all the way home and beyond, and that surely has to be a good thing for any piece of theatre to achieve.

Runs until 6 September 2017 | Image: Isaac James

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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