views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Space
3rd September 2015


Publicity image for Salome

Photography provided by The Space

Given hell hath no fury like an average woman scorned, why would you ever say no to a princess? When prophet Jokanaan (James Barnes) rejects Salomé (Liza Weber), she asks her stepfather, Herod (Christopher Slater) to kill him. Herod may be a giant lech, much to the horror and disgust of his wife Herodias (Cheska Hill-Wood), but even he balks at slaughtering a holy man. Not our Salomé - the original bunny boiler. She knows what she wants and it's a silver dish best served with a bloody head on top.

Herod incidentally is "that" Herod, and Jokanaan is another name for John the Baptist. Immediately you know why Oscar Wilde's Salomé courted controversy and got itself banned - it's a play with links to Christianity which contains the original striptease, incest and some gruesome deaths. Not exactly the religion's finest hour. And yet, despite all that, it's only one act and not particularly long. This version by Théâtre Libre is 90 minutes straight through, but could easily be cut down to an hour or even a little bit less than that.

There are some lovely touches by director Kaitlin Argeaux. The opening sequence in which Salomé is unveiled by the ensemble (Sofia Amir, Alex Marlow and Tom Swale) veers between ethereal and disturbing, hinting at the tragic events to follow. They push and pull her mechanically like a toy ballerina, then the movements become increasingly sexual and dark, with these connotations made more evident as Weber repeats them over and over again, growing quicker and more frantic. Furthermore, when Salomé finally dances for Herod, her mother never once watches the action, looking away and gulping down her glass of red wine, using the drink as a crutch to get through the evening. Argeaux's eye on the background there is admirable.

The sheer ambition in putting together this production is also praiseworthy. Rachel Ryan's design is one of the most impressive examples of stage carpentry I've seen at The Space before - the main stage has been transformed into two levels, separating out the pleasant banqueting up on high and the more base, carnal, upsetting activities below. Tall wings have been erected on both sides to disguise the two exits there and to create distinct areas onto which rolling news footage and social media page grabs can be projected. Although I understand the desire to modernise a script from the late 19th century, the references to Salomé's Twitter activities feel jarring. Whilst the cast are dressed in modern clothing and that does work, it feels like the web pages projected onto the walls are gimmicky and detract from the main performance. Effort and thought clearly have gone into this, but the digital aspect doesn't do anything for the production.

The first half feels slow - Wilde's dialogue is very repetitive and that does begin to wear after a while. However, in the second half, Salomé suddenly transforms into the crazy psycho she's meant to be. Part attractive femme fatale, part every man's worst nightmare, Weber gives a rightly shocking delivery. Her character's negotiations with the tetrarch are horribly uncomfortable and cold, and whilst it does take Herod some time to realise she's not joking, we know straight away, chilled by her brutality. All innocence and sanity slip away and there can be no happy resolution. This shift in tone captures Wilde's original intention perfectly.

The dance of the seven veils disappointingly doesn't seem to involve any veils being removed and isn't particularly raunchy, save for one sequence where Herod approaches a supine Salomé. We see the full extent of tetrarch's inappropriate lust in Slater's gaze, and his frustration as she moves away, thwarting his attempts for intimacy. Most of the dance, largely choreographed by movement director Justyna Ziarek with some additional steps by Weber, is feverish rather than sexy. As Weber throws herself around the stage, she holds some very awkward positions, demonstrating her dexterity and strength - it may not be the dance I expected, but it's magnificent nonetheless.

It's been a good few years since we saw a production of Salomé off-West End and that's because it's a difficult play to stage for a myriad of reasons. Its bloody conclusion is one of them, however prosthetic designer Andrea Peng does a decent enough job of creating the illusion for us. Whilst the result may not be perfect, we're shown enough to understand how crazed the young princess has become.

There are some distinct flashes of brilliance in this play and a huge amount of ambition. There may be a few lulls, but Salomeé is every bit as monstrous and disturbing as it should be.

Salome opened on 1st September and runs until 19th September 2015 at The Space.

Nearest tube station: Mudchute (DLR)

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