Pretty early on in this pandemic I reviewed Oscar Wilde’s four major plays: Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman Of No Importance, An Ideal Husband and The Importance Of Being Earnest. Since then I’ve also enjoyed a marvellous dramatisation of his novel The Picture Of Dorian Gray and a staged version of some of his other writing called Wilde About The Boy. The one piece needed to complete the jigsaw was his fifth and final play Salomé. Wilde’s atypical foray into drama attracted controversy in its day and was banned from the British stage for 35 years – ostensibly because it portrayed Biblical characters. No such problems for the appropriately named Lazarus Theatre Company who have revived their own pre-pandemic production originally seen at Greenwich but now at Southwark Playhouse. It is playing live nightly but yesterday there were two livestreams which could be accessed. Given my need for some Wildean completion I couldn’t afford to miss it….. so, I didn’t.
The basis of the story is the grisly end of John The Baptist, Herod’s stepdaughter Salomé having demanded the latter’s head on a platter at the instigation of her mother, Herodias; the prophet had been rather bad mouthing her up and down the length of the country. Herod is reluctant but promises Salomé her heart’s desire should she dance for him; mother and daughter make it difficult for him to go back on his word and eventually they get their own way. In this production Salomé is a prince rather than a princess though no less capricious which gives a whole different dynamic to the scenario but doesn’t seem out of keeping given Wilde’s own proclivities and there’s certainly a different sort of eroticism at play.
It has to be said straight off the bat that Wilde’s famous wit is scarcely in evidence in this play. Instead, we are “treated” to a sombre tone which is almost laughable and a great deal of overworked symbolism – I thought at one point that if anyone else goes on about the moon, I’ll scream. There is also the overblown repetition of a single point – as Herod tries to change Salomé’s mind he lists the jewels he will tempt the prince with. Then he lists some more jewels. And then some more – OK already, you’ve got copious amounts of jewellery, we get it! And that’s after some of the more tedious passages have been excised along with even more exposition than there already is. I’m afraid it has to be said that if Oscar Wide’s name were not attached to this piece would anyone really be attempting to revive it? The acting was fine enough (with a particularly good interpretation by Jamie O’Neill as Herod) but the terrible excesses of the po-faced dialogue meant that the team were up against it.
Lazarus certainly make of the piece what they can in terms of style. They have opted for a traverse staging so the lengthy platform can become a terrace, a massive banqueting table, a street or the ramparts of a castle. What it really becomes, however, is a catwalk along which the characters, particularly Salomé, can strut. I didn’t get the impression that the set up was particularly easy to film which certainly added to my disquiet about the production. Everything and everyone reeks of opulence with monochrome costuming having flashes of gold with props mostly gold too. Most noticeable are the twelve weighted down gold helium balloons which are onstage at the start and which are gathered together at either end of the set. They are probably some sort of symbol of the twelve tribes of Israel or the twelve disciples but as this is never made clear it remains a mystery. The collector is the figure of the Baptist – styled here Jokanaan – a constant accusatory presence patrolling the perimeter with a slow funereal gait, unnerving to characters and the audience alike. In the printed text there is the simple direction “Salomé dances the dance of the seven veils”. Well, not in this version. True the prince puts on a peacock blue frock and starts the routine as a slow strip tease, but it soon dissolves into a chase sequence along, around and underneath the banqueting table – I’m afraid I couldn’t take this seriously and just kept thinking of Cinderella fleeing the place at midnight or, in its worst excesses, a Tom and Jerry cartoon. I suspect it had more menace live though I really can’t suppose it was any more erotic which is surely what should be aimed for. The final denouement is, however, well done and grisly enough without being gratuitous.
Although I’m pleased to have ticked off the last of Wilde’s plays from my personal pandemic list it is hardly surprising that this is the least performed of his plays. It reveals that he was superb at some things but dire at others and should certainly have left tragedy well alone. In one of his witticisms, Wilde states: “Success is a science; if you have the conditions, you get the result” – he hasn’t so he doesn’t. In fact, he overreaches himself calling to mind another aphorism “Ambition is the last refuge of the failure”. Shame!
Today’s bonus Scenes For Survival piece is Babe Rainbow. Elaine (Natalie Moore Williams) has a potentially boring job delivering people’s post. She’s found a way to spice it up and bring some joy to her customers too, but do her bosses approve? Ian Low’s piece brings a ray of sunshine into lockdown life
Salomé livestreamed for one day only from Southwark Playhouse but still has live performances going forward – click here
Scenes For Survival pieces are available from the NTS website – click here; a number are also available on BBC iPlayer – click here
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