REVIEW: Salomé at The Swan, RSC

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Matthew Pidgeon as Herod oggles Matthew Tennyson's Salomé.

STEVE SUTHERLAND reviews the production at the RSC that runs until 7th September

There’s been a fair old fuss in the media recently about The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper turning 50. But there’s another somewhat more significant event about to mark its very own half century; a landmark that, unforgivably, is currently being less handsomely celebrated. Nineteen-sixty-seven was also the year that homosexuality was decriminalised in England and Wales so hats off to director Owen Horsley for appreciating this historic occasion and making his new production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome into a fully gay affair.

The play, if those of you who lack a Biblical bent will forgive a crude precis, is based on the New Testament tale of a Jewish princess called Salomé. She gets the hots for an imprisoned, highly principled Christian prophet called Iokanaan, aka John The Baptist, who rebuffs her amorous advances. Meanwhile Salome’s stepdad, King Herod, has the pervy hots for the minx and she agrees to perform a sexy dance for him on the condition he grants her something in return. That something turns out to be the prophet’s head on a silver platter. The twist in our production is that Salome is played by a boy, which may sound grimly gimmicky on paper but amazingly not for one second does it grate on stage.

Much of the credit for this minor miracle must go to Matthew Tennyson whose portrayal of Salome is brilliantly grounded as a (very) pretty normal teenager — precocious, pouting, and brattish. It helps, of course, that Tennyson resembles a young David Bowie to an uncanny extent, an unconscious narcissist flouncing about in a slip and high heels as (s)he selfishly brings all to calamity.

Matthew Pidgeon’s Herod’s splendid too — the very acme of feeble leadership, one moment braying in ecstasy, the next mewling for pity. He’s constantly surrounded by a posse of simpering suck-ups who bring about some light relief with their animated verbal skirmishes about deities and their doctrines, rendered all the more ridiculous when contrasted with Iokanaan’s sinister surety.

Gavin Fowler’s powerfully charismatic prophet is really some achievement considering how uncomfortably accustomed we’re getting to real life full-on fanatics. His fiery roaring and obsessive ranting is stirring, scary stuff, only topped by his ominous, almost grateful silence at the prospect of his beheading.

Some bits don’t quite work. Salomé getting his tackle out during the dance of the seven veils isn’t really necessary and seems like a slightly crude bid to grab some headlines. I’m also unconvinced that the new score, specially composed by Perfume Genius, and belted out like The Rocky Horror Show by strapping tranny Ilan Evans, adds any dimension at all to the drama. In all honesty, it never seems to mesh with the play and, at the spooky climax when Salomé finally gets to kiss Iokanaan’s cold, dead lips, it rudely intrudes on the tension. It’s not that it isn’t any good; it just seems a bit West End-y, like it’s landed from an alien production.

Still, nothing really distracts us for long from the real star of the show, Wilde’s words themselves. Wonderful things, perfectly lovely, full of serpentine twists and turns, white peacocks and glittering diadems, poetic repetition betraying reversal of meanings, ornate and extravagant, rich and exotic, a gateau born of fear and insecurity. And finally all to no avail, rendered helplessly dumb in the face of Salomé’s spoiled, gorgeous youth.

It’s harrowing to think that, when the play was first performed back in 1896, after a long, long ban, Wilde was banged up in Reading gaol convicted of sodomy. Thank goodness most of us live in more enlightened times.

Someone should bung Mrs May’s new chums in Northern Ireland a fistful of comps.