Salome by Headlong Theatre

There are times when watching theatre that you just can’t help but to think, “am I missing something?”. Clearly with Headlong Theatre‘s new touring theatre adventure, Salome by Oscar Wilde, I was somehow on a different wavelength altogether.

Wilde’s verse like rendition of the mythical story of Salome the ‘female seductress’ is a complicated text which loops in repetition and is melodramatic in every sense of the word. Jamie Llyod’s direction reflects this melodrama and rapidly brings it up to a twenty-first century rendition, where a grotesque and sexual portrayal of the myth is played out. However, despite the thrusting groin first into the twenty-first century, Salome under Llyod’s direction misses the poetic flow of the original Wilde.

My take on Salome is purely from a first time flying visit to the work of Wilde, and therefore I look at this production from nothing else but a theatre piece but even so there is a sense that the text just hasn’t been used well. Melodrama is at the forefront of Llyod’s direction, and it is maintained at the same melodramatic level for the duration of the piece. This continued level of energy and heightened tension means that the only place for the actors to go is downwards.

For instance, Con O’Neill as Herod, the ruler of the lands, is played with such force and a continued shouted level of voice, that indeed when he gets angry at his commanding officers his shout becomes a whisper. O’Neill literally struggles to reach anything beyond his continued shouting, and if anything I would be more inclined to give him a good dose of throat lozenges for fear of him losing his voice by the end of the run at the Richmond Theatre.

Herod is not the only character to be played to excesses that aren’t required, the leading figure of Salome played by Zawe Ashton has been portrayed as a twenty first-century sexual Essex girl. Whilst I applaud Lloyd’s determination to strip all ideas of how Salome should be as a character, Ashton’s Essex impression is somewhat irritating. She resembles more of a Charley Uchea from the Big Brother series, than a temptress of the modern world. Exposing her bra and knickers underneath her costume seems rather tame compared to some of the shocking things we see on British Television these days. Even Salome’s dance of seduction (complete with Boom Box and Beyonce music) seems more of a farce and joke than someone who could actually woe any sexual life out of a man. Maybe this is the point? A crude take on today’s society? Even so, I can’t help but to think Lloyd’s Salome is a little too tepid and lacking in the true grotesque and sexual perversion he really wanted.

Salome isn’t however a complete write off, there is something rather profound hidden amongst the action. Extraction of it requires concentration and determination to find the true joy within the piece. Soutra Gilmour’s set design combined with Jon Clark’s lighting and Ben and Max Ringham’s music/sound design compliment each other perfectly to give a dark, sinister and at times chilling shakeup to the Salome story. What works wonderfully is the constant droning and thumping of sound that seems to erupt from the depths of The Richmond Theatre, giving the old proscenium arch itself a life beneath the decor.

Also a notable mention is justly deserved to Jaye Griffiths whose character of Herodias is wonderful. Her cackle echoed around the Richmond with such wonderful bouts of joy that it seemed to me to give a whole life of its own to Salome. If anything, Herodias comes across as the only character who seems somewhat real, despite her apparent obsession with idea that The Prophet is speaking unruly of her.

Whilst Headlong and Lloyd’s interpretation for Salome is bold and daring, it is a little too far from the essence of Greek mythology and as such I  would have liked to understand Wilde’s text more, instead of constantly trying to keep up with a relentless stream of dialogue. It does however feature a rather spectacular severed head complete with oozing blood that when kissed by Salome sends a slight shiver down ones spine.

Salome is currently on tour. You can catch it at the Richmond Theatre until 29th May. From there, see the Headlong Theatre website for the complete tour dates including their London run at the Hampstead Theatre.