Along with the Globe’s recent Romeo and Juliet, this is yet another production to add to the list: ‘Theatre Critics are Old and Need to Wake Up and Greet the 21st Century’. The only critic I can completely agree with is he/she who produced the quote which now adorns the poster, saying that Wilde would love this production. Because, God damn, he would.
Salomé, Oscar Wilde’s biblical, lyrical play, follows the princess Salomé who – after seeing prophet Iokanaan – is consumed by a desire which, after he rejects her, leads her to demand his head as payment for the dance she performs for her stepdad. Yep. At only 90 minutes, it’s almost a Jesus prequel, but in itself filled with sin. And power. And blood – gruesome and hearty.
To celebrate 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK, Salomé is played by the indescribable Matthew Tennyson (who I think the sun shines out of), and this gender-bent casting draws all the homosexual frustration of Wilde’s poetry out and lays them bare before us on the stage – and the result is more than moving. What Tennyson and this production does impeccably is draw not one but two messages from 90 minutes of drama. As a woman, Salomé inspires nothing but empathy; she is repressed, afraid, sexual, magnetic, manipulative. Tennyson flutters, always believable, between the faces the men want to see: a minx, the coy virgin, the temptress, the harpy. But, out of their eyes, she is heartbreaking in vulnerability or ascending with her dominance. But, then, as a man – naked – Salomé becomes a stark representation of Wilde himself – persecuted for his sexuality, angry, broken. The church and society condemned women for being sexual creatures in the bible, the church and society condemned gay men for being sexual creatures – or even being themselves – in Victorian England.
As I said before, Tennyson is ferociously good. In her final monologue, Tennyson’s seemingly simple acting choice, to not enunciate the ‘t’s in the line “I said it; did I not say it? I said it.”, showed the prowess of a master, and yet Tennyson is so young he looks like the beautiful boy Wilde would have fawned over. It’s a simple choice that struck me at the very core – and I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and will be thinking about it for a long while. Elegant, kittenish, unapologetic, suffering – it’s a remarkable performance that encourages the audience to lend their hearts. And, like Iokanaan, she destroys them.
As a self-confessed Wilde-aholic, I lap up all the sugary, flowery, cupcake-y language, rich and flamboyant and long-winded – on the whole, it doesn’t bother me. But I can completely understand how it could grate. But this production must be given credit for how, by making it fresh and spicy, it is able to lift some of the heavier, more morose sections of language (save one passage in which Herod lists all the jewels he would rather Salomé ask for, rather than Iokanaan’s head, which begins to grate on even the most wild for Wilde).
Music from American Perfume Genius is fantastic, complimenting the action almost seamlessly. The pulsing as she performs her dance, writing and juddering, before carnal screams being released in her moment of excruciating bareness. ‘Queen’ beginning the show, setting the tone. A drag element, a celebration of our liberal West, showing how far we’ve come in 50 years, but casting a bitter tone to the societies we are watching play out on the stage. A dance routine between two ‘brothers’ (more like lovers) is quite lovely, weaving in the sexual ambiguity which has given this show the edge over the similar National Theatre production.
And a shower of glitter over Iokanaan’s decapitated head. Need I say more?
Now, I’m not saying this production doesn’t have its flaws. There are some moments I remember thinking “I’d rather this wasn’t happening.” Nothing ruined it, but Iokanaan’s worthy Godly act got tedious after a while, and some of the moments seemed overblown, pantomime-ish and hammy. Perhaps this is only due to the contrast of Tennyson, whose performance was so acutely measured.
The RSC does endings like no other. I cannot remember a final moment in an RSC play that hasn’t made me gasp or given me goosebumps. They know how to do a bloody good ending. And this ending, as Salomé is condemned, yet again, by the male society, is spine-chillingly good, and a vicious reminder of a woman’s place. Even when she seems her most powerful – she is cut down. Just like Oscar Wilde himself.
And, please, give me more shows like this one. Damn the critics.