A Wilde Stab in the Dark: The Little Performed ‘Salome’
Salomé is a bit of an oddity in the Wilde canon. It sits apart from the drawing room comedies upon which his fame is largely based and as a result it is rarely staged. Originally written in French in 1891, the play was banned from the English theatres, as it was illegal to depict a biblical figure (John the Baptist) on stage. As a result the play was only first staged in 1896 in France, and it wasn’t until 1905, five years after Wilde’s death, that an English version was mounted.
Salomé is set in Biblical times at the palace of King Herod, where the prophet John the Baptist is kept imprisoned in a cell. There he stays until the Princess Salomé desires to see him … and then kiss him, against the prophet’s will. The princess has never been denied anything and will use all of her feminine wiles to get what she desires, no matter the cost.
Unlike Wilde’s other plays, which are perhaps constricted by the tradition of 19th Century Realism, Salomé can, and has been, interpreted in a variety of different ways. Andrew O’Connell, director of this production, elected to go with a minimalist set: two chairs and a side-table. This choice quite neatly suited the stage, as the theatre itself is absolutely tiny – 60 seats in an almost broken down and re-patched art studio. The covered and concealed hallway audiences walk down to reach the stage resembles an old castle’s: the one with the creepy art that you’re sure is watching you. Very atmospheric.
Whilst the style of Salomé is not a traditional ‘Wilde’ (instead he draws heavily from Greek Tragedy), there is still much wit (and laughs) to be found. Yet O’Connell has opted to play the show as a straight tragedy. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; however there are laughs to be had that are – maybe – missed out on. Instead, O’Connell’s focus is on ‘desire’ and more specifically, self-destructive desire. Desire which we are warned against, that we know bodes ill for us, but which we pursue anyway, because we are compelled to by impulses beyond our control.
To this end the moon plays an important role: all the characters comment on it and are drawn by its beauty. The moon has always been a force which compels – even one that unleashes the dark bestial nature within man. It is fitting then that Salomé is aligned with the moon. The other characters are drawn to her, gaze upon her, and are warned not to for ‘something terrible will happen’. And, just like the moon, Salomé becomes a force which compels the other characters to act against their better judgment, for to look upon her is to desire her. That’s the theory anyway. Although the text itself draws these lines perhaps more could have been done performance and staging-wise to hit their theme home.
As to the performances, whilst the dark haired beauty, Frances Attard (Salomé), was visually perfect, she needed to vamp up the seductiveness. If she is to be a femme fatal then she must make those guards sweat, doubly so King Herod. Nonetheless, Attard made a wonderful fist of the last speech; her passion, or better termed ‘lusting’, for John was palpable. Both Morgan Duncan and Gerard Holland played the so called narrators, a kind of conglomerate of characters (O’Connell took some liberties with the text, making edits which for the most part were quite seamless). They made good attempts at a difficult job. They often had a lot of ‘set up’ to burn through and lengthy stretches of time standing silent. All of which was done without a shirt on. Good form lads. John the Baptist, Jareth Norman, was played with a soft intensity. Such a choice missed out on the grandeur necessary for the character. Yet our prophet could always be heard and his silent death was rather chilling. Vivian Tselios as Heroidas did not have much of a chance to shine, one of the few casualties of the edited script, which occasioned in the loss of her more witty dialogue.
Of interest was director O’Connell, who also played Herod: whilst he evidently had stage skills it felt at times to be the Woody Allen variation on an otherwise ruthless and cold king. The problem really is that if the character begins nervous, he has nowhere else to go. Granted, the actors had a very tight space to work in. They were often cramped on stage and there was little room for ‘big’ acting, but they did well with what they had – which is a credit to all of them.
Overall, a Wilde play is still a Wilde play. However, this production at times suffers from a lack of direction. Not simply from the director himself but in terms of what it aims to achieve. It fumbles for the theme laid out in the program: the exploration of ‘desire with reckless abandon.’ Certainly, those new to the text must go on a ‘theme’ scavenger hunt, but by the time a production rolls around, they must have more of an idea than the audience. Nonetheless, this is still a stoic attempt to perform the little staged Salomé, and for that alone they must be commended.
Salomé is being performed at the Tap Gallery, Darlinghurst until the 3rd of February. For further information and tickets see: http://www.tapgallery.org.au/2013/01/oscar-wilde-salome-28th-jan-3rd-feb-8pm/