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Theatre Review: Salomé @ The Royal Shakespeare Company

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Salomé, Oscar Wilde’s lyrical tale of betrayal and desire, is currently showing at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), with Matthew Tennyson playing the eponymous title figure. The RSC has revived Wilde’s play in order to commemorate 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK.

Wilde himself was famously imprisoned for gross indecency, as a result of his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, but his biography alone does not warrant this play being a suitable work to commemorate the Sex Offences Act.

The figure of Salomé derives from the Bible; after dancing for her father, Salomé demands that she is given the head of John the Baptist. Since the inception of the Salomé figure, she has been used as a symbol for female deviancy, the male gaze, and more recently as an exotic Oriental object. It feels like a natural progression, then, that she is queered, as her betrayal and entrapment so easily invites us to consider this myth in light of gender and sexuality.

Wilde was inspired by the French Symbolists when writing the play – and director Owen Horsley takes plenty of poetic licence in subverting these symbols to suit his agenda. Rather than existing as a virginal object, the moon appears shattered, which is emblematic of the director's distorted view of the source text. The setting of the play is queered by, naturally, caking props in glitter, marking the arrival of Jokanaan’s head with an explosion of confetti, and letting iridescent petals fall into the audience from above. 

Credit: Isaac James

Of course, the most dramatic section of the play is the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’. Drenched in red light, Salomé performs a beautiful and delicate routine, that quickens in pace as she is chased up a ladder, ending in a blood-red tableau. It’s a feverish set piece and a stark vision of Hell. Nothing that I’ve seen in the theatre this year has engrained itself in my memory as strikingly. 

Where the play falters mostly, however, is in its music choices. There’s no doubt that Perfume Geniuses’ music is haunting and powerful, but the selections made here – which are taken mostly from his 2014 album, Too Bright – feel somewhat contrived. Yes, using ‘Queen’ for the opening scene works effectively, empowering Salomé as she struts onto the stage in white wings and red stilettos, but its tone is misleading in the context of what follows.

Wilde’s lyrical one act drama has been staged multiple times, but this is surely one of the most captivating. Matthew Tennyson, as Salomé, is faultless; he balances masterfully on the border between masculinity and femininity and is utterly transfixing.

Horsley has orchestrated a haunting spectacle and his production will no doubt be remembered as a daring adaptation. Despite its flaws, Salomé feels like the perfect play to stage in this commemorative year, and makes a fine contribution to the wave of queer culture that is celebrating the LGBTQ+ experience and challenging our perceptions of masculinity. 

To purchase tickets, or to find out more about the production, visit the RSC website

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