Currently running in stage in the Little at Southwark Playhouse, Lazarus Theatre’s version of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé proves to be a daring, electric, and exhausting feat of theatre. I am watching the livestreamed version so do not get the full extent of the energy ‘in the room’, but this gender-fluid version (Salomé is played by a man, Fred Thomas – not for the first time, as the RSC did this first) takes this astonishing queer play and makes it just as powerful as it must have been on its first staging in 1891.
Banned in Britain for a further forty years, Salomé continues to court controversy. It is, along with the Song of Solomon, the Biblical story which nudges at the erotic and the sensual the most. Salomé, child of the wife of Herod (Jamie O’Neill), develops an obsessional passion for John the Baptist, here named Jokanaan. Subversive, shocking, and completely outrageous, Wilde’s text, adapted and directed by Ricky Dukes, continues to provoke.
As a one-act production with no interval, this production is a constant onslaught of ideas, and is never anything less than intriguing. It is set in traverse staging and in modern dress, so there is nowhere to hide and no historical context to obscure what we are watching. The language has been made more earthy and scatalogical, which seems to provoke in itself, but this does not mean the beauty of Wilde’s French text, as originally translated by his nemesis Lord Alfred Douglas, is cheapened or lost.
Prince Plockey’s Jokanaan is a towering presence, sure-footed, strong, and determined. If you have watched the opera based on this play, by Richard Strauss, you will know that this is the character, not Salomé, who is front and centre of the production. This is the man who baptised Jesus. This is the man who can change history by his legacy, after death. Salomé may lust after him, wishing for his destruction to be able to ‘kiss his mouth’, an act of power as well as reverence, but s/he is only remembered as a footnote in the story of the Baptist.
Stylish, visceral, and very contemporary, Lazarus’s production may not always succeed, and the Dance of the Seven Veils is certainly missed as a set-piece, but this Salomé challenges the senses and shakes up a difficult play to make it a valuable modern show.
You can watch Salomé at the Southwark Playhouse until 11 September: tickets here. My grateful thanks to Ricky Dukes for arranging complimentary access to the livestream on the afternoon of 31 August.
Image credit: Adam Trigg