“You must not look at her. You look too much at her.”
Salome has quite some theatrical pedigree: presented by Rupert Goold’s Headlong company and directed by Donmar Associate Jamie Lloyd, Oscar Wilde’s one act tragedy based on the Biblical story has been radically refashioned into a bold new production currently touring the UK (Oxford, Newcastle and Brighton remain) before settling at the Hampstead Theatre for a month on 22nd June.
Set in a post-apocalyptic futuristic industrial hellhole somewhere in the Middle East, spoiled princess Salome takes a perverse fancy to Iokanaan (John the Baptist) despite or perhaps because of the grim prophecies he has for her mother, Herodias, and stepfather, the Tetrarch King Herod. It seems as if these prophecies, and the detestation both Herod and Herodias have for the prophet, are the reason for Salome’s sudden obsession but when Herod makes her an offer she can’t refuse involving a dance, the opportunistic princess sows the seeds for her own downfall.
After a slightly slow opening 15 minutes or so, Salome soon kicks into gear with a highly visual gore-filled, sexualised take on the well known Biblical story. Not recognisably Wildean it must be said, Jamie Lloyd has stripped it bare of its original idiosyncrasies and reconstructed a savage modern tale of 21st century sexuality which surprises rather than truly shocks but nevertheless develops into an engaging account of what is a largely familiar story.
As the titular Salome, Zawe Ashton is unashamedly shallow and sexual, portraying her as hopped up on something or other, her jittery hands unable to stop themselves from running over her body, alive to her sexuality but not yet fully aware of its power and the consequences of flaunting it so vividly. This awkwardness is perfectly played in the beginning of the infamous dance sequence, thoroughly updated here but imbued with a painful ungainliness exacerbated by the reaction of Herod (which is to masturbate furiously in the open court). Ashton has to deal with much of Wilde’s repetitive text, endlessly repeating two key phrases but she fills them with sufficient petulance to remind us that this is just an oversexualised kid.
As the tyrannical, testosterone-fuelled Herod, Con O’Neill is quite something: sexually hungry for men and women alike and unable to control his urges, leading to his rash promise that leads to the climactic demand. Physically he gave a magnificent portrayal of this rapacious despot and the human frailty beneath the swaggering, but I wasn’t 100% convinced by his vocal delivery, strangely high-pitched and mostly delivered at a bellow. Jaye Griffiths is vocally much stronger as his attention-hungry embittered wife and as a result becomes something of a focal point as probably the strongest performance onstage. Seun Shote’s Iokanaan deserves a special mention though: kept chained under a manhole, his first arrival from his prison kickstarts the show, his muscular presence rising from the deeps and spewing forth prophetic pronouncements with a powerful baritone. The rest of the ensemble is strong but there is little to distinguish them from one another, only Richard Cant’s heartbroken Page of Herodias stands out with his revelations about the true closeness of his friendship with the Young Syrian Sam Donovan.
The design by Soutra Gilmour is impressive, all the more so considering how it reinvents the traditional stage at Richmond and is a touring show, with a large square sandpit strewn with puddles of tar dominating the dungeon-like space, scaffolds and lighting rigs around the walls add to savagery of the landscape. Combined with very effective lighting and pulsing sound design, there is a great sense of atmosphere to this production culminating in the production of an extremely gory and effective severed head, and with a running time of just 90 minutes, it doesn’t outstay its welcome. All in all, something really quite different and interesting that you should make the effort to see.
Running time: 90 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £3
Note: smoke, haze and scenes of a sexual nature abound in this production so probably not one for the sensitive.