The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 22nd June, 2017
Oscar Wilde’s one-act tragedy is far from a particular favourite of mine. I prefer his epigrammatic, frothy word play to the heightened, florid language of this retelling of the Biblical story, where the characters speak mainly in similes and declamations. How refreshing it is when Herodias proclaims, “The moon is like the moon!” – as fed up with the poetic spouting as I am!
Owen Horsley’s production has a decidedly ‘gay’ aesthetic. Herod’s guards could be bouncers in a fetish club (I imagine) but there delivery is mere recitation. The action begins to come to life with the first appearance of Salome herself (a gamin Matthew Tennyson) who speaks her lines as though she means them rather than pompous intonation. Salome is intrigued by Herod’s prisoner, the prophet Iokanann (John the Baptist by another name) played by Gavin Fowler. Iokanann is filthy, clad only in his underwear, but he still catches the young princess’s eye. He rejects her advances – with fatal consequences. What I don’t get is why he is permitted to continue giving his ominous predictions – if characters like Herod and Herodias find his words so annoying or insulting, why didn’t they gag him, at least? Oh well. His prophecies add to the sense of impending doom, I suppose.
Fowler is an agile Iokanann, filled with the wild conviction of his beliefs, while Suzanne Burden’s wearily glamorous Herodias is a fine comic counterpoint. Matthew Pidgeon is imposing as the hedonistic Herod, and there are some fine, compelling moments: for example, a spot of contemporary dance depicting the grief of the Page (Andro Cowperthwaite) for the death of Assad Zaman’s Young Syrian. The music by Perfume Genius is pulsing and vibrant, with the energy of clubland, which works well to underscore the action. Singer Ilan Evans, a world-weary M.C. adds torch-song resignation to events as they unfold.
But it is Matthew Tennyson’s Salome that holds the attention. Seemingly fragile, almost bird-like, he evokes rather than impersonates the female. His dance is a high-energy, jerky affair, reflecting the lust of Herod and his court – Polly Bennett’s movement direction brings angst and tension and above all expression to Wilde’s difficult exchanges. Tennyson is boldly defiant – Salome is accustomed to using her wiles to get her own way but is also strong and stubborn enough to stand her ground when denied. She is determined to kill the thing she loves – ooh, that sounds familiar… The story culminates in horror as Salome remonstrates and coos with the head of the man who rejected her advances.
A rather patchy affair, I’m afraid, this tale about unrequited passions, but on the whole I think I enjoyed the production more than the actual play.