Oscar Wilde
Headlong Theatre and The Curve, Leicester
Northern Stage, Newcastle, and touring

Production photo

By an odd coincidence, just as I began to write this review, I received David Chadderton's review of the Manchester Library Theatre's production of Wilde's most well known play, The Importance of Being Earnest. There could not be a greater contrast.

Telling the story of the beheading of John the Baptist at the request of Salome, daughter of Herodias, as her reward for dancing the Dance of the Seven Veils for the Tetrarch Herod Antipas, the play is full of imagery which owes much to the Song of Solomon (and with more than a touch of the French symboliste poets: Wilde was living in Paris and had recently met with Mallarmé when the wrote the play) and is suffused by the same eroticism. But beneath this surface aestheticism there are more basic emotions at play: lust rather than love, jealousy and hatred.

It is on these basic emotions that director Jamie Lloyd and his designer Soutra Gilmour focus and, rather than the sumptuous palace required by the stage directions ("A great terrace in the Palace of Herod, set above the banqueting-hall. Some soldiers are leaning over the balcony. To the right there is a gigantic staircase, to the left, at the back, an old cistern surrounded by a wall of green bronze. The moon is shining very brightly"), we are presented with a grungy, post-apocalyptic stretch of black, oily sand, surrounded by a metal walkway and scaffolding with a large manhole cover in the middle, the cistern in which Iokanaan, the Baptist, is imprisoned. It's all very Mad Max and in odd contrast to the words of Salome's second speech: "How sweet is the air here! I can breathe here!"

The costumes are grey, quasi-military with a suggestion of dilapidation. Smoke hangs in the air and the lighting is harsh, from large numbers of parcans with their hard-edged beams rather than the softer light of most stage lanterns. This is a far cry from the expected glamour of the Tetrarch's palace.

When Salome appears, she is dressed in a one-piece, almost battledress outfit, zipped up the front; a zip which is soon unfastened to reveal her underwear. Sexuality replaces sensuality, especially when she fondles her crotch. It is blatant sexuality, and yet Zawe Ashton gives her a kind of confused innocence, as if her display is learned rather than the natural whiles of the seductress. This reflects the words she says on her first entrance: "Why does the Tetrarch look at me all the while with his mole's eyes under his shaking eyelids? It is strange that the husband of my mother looks at me like that. I know not what it means. Of a truth I know it too well."

The same kind of duality is evident in the Dance of the Seven Veils. Dressed like a street walker, with inexpertly applied make-up, she brings on a large boom box, toys with its aerial as if with a penis, dances as if taking part in a music video, does a very inexpert strip (definitely not a striptease) and then quickly puts her clothes back on. And all this while standing on the manhole cover. Erotic it is not.

But Herod, like his wife Herodias in clown white face, certainly finds it so as he masturbates through his trousers as she dances.

He, too, is a mass of contradictions: quite happy to kill people for no reason, obsessed with his step-daughter/niece, swilling wine by the gallon, and yet afraid of Iokanaan and desperately squirming to persuade her to any other reward than what she has asked for.

The grunge element is continued in the royals' costumes and even in drinking: wine is poured from jerry cans into unadorned simple metal cups, reminiscent of the sort of thing a soldier might carry.

All of the elements of lust, sexual obsession, incest, jealousy and hatred - and the culminating necrophilia - are thrust into the audience's faces with no attempt at subtlety and almost carry us along with them - almost, because there are moments - and quite a few of them - where what we see is at total variance with what we hear. I was left feeling I'd been to two plays, one I was watching and one I was listening to.

Runs at Northern Stage until 12th June, then moving to Brighton and Hampstead.

Philip Fisher reviewed this production at Hampstead.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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