Con O’Neill, Zawe Ashton, Jaye Griffiths, Richard Cant, Vyelle Croom, Sam Donovan, Nitzan Sharron, Tom Byam Shaw, Seun Shote, Tim Steed
Anyone who frequents the world’s opera houses will probably be more familiar with Oscar Wilde’s Salome than most theatregoers, as Richard Strauss’s seminal 1905 opera, performed today with some regularity, is pretty much a straight setting of the text.
Jamie Lloyd’s production of the play for Headlong Theatre matches Strauss’s score for discordant energy, giving us 90 minutes of expressionist frenzy with little let-up. Anyone expecting the Wilde of his witty, urbane comedies may be in for a bit of a shock.
The text is ripe, purple, poetic prose and it paints a pretty damning portrait of lustful and corrupt humanity. As the ultimate woman scorned, a lithe and beautiful Zawe Ashton, twitching like a drug addict, gropes herself lewdly as she alternately praises and reviles the chained Ioakanaan (Seun Shote). Once she’s gained her ends and had the prophet executed, she cradles his spurting head and lavishes kisses on the mouth denied her in life.
The salient points of the biblical plot are all there but Wilde adds layers of licentiousness that could only have come from a fin de sicle imagination. It’s like a Greek tragedy on speed and Lloyd extracts every ounce of expression from it.
Con O’ Neill as the tetrarch sets a high-pitched note which he tends to stick to but gives us a no-holds barred picture of a man bound-up in the tentacles of lust, masturbating furiously as Salome performs for him. The famous dance is a send-up, the princess in synthetic wig, lap-dancer get-up and ghetto-blaster, an indicator of the depths of Herod’s prurient shallowness. Strangely, it’s kind of sexy at the same time.
Jaye Griffiths impresses as a grungy, mouthy Herodias, spurred on by her daughter’s vengeful demands, extracted from a step-father hectored into shambolic weakness and submission.
It’s acted out on a pit of black sand and bare scaffolding, with the cast of Cappadocians, Nazarenes and Jews drawn from a chorus of ruffians in combat-gear and guns. There’s an ever-present thumping background, out of which Iokanann’s judgments echo eerily from a central cistern.
It’s pretty extreme stuff; theatrically exciting and a great opportunity to see a side of Oscar Wilde a million miles away from the drawing rooms of late Victorian society.