In a tragedy as old as this one, pulled from the bible by Oscar Wilde for his masterpiece play back in 1891, it always surprises me how captivating such sorrow can be. EDIFICE’s theatrical dance production only intensifies my interest of what makes Salomé so alluring to generations of audiences. Whilst this performance uses physicality to guide the audience and is entirely devoid of text, there is one word I can hear billowing through every sinew of my body.
The sensuality and sexuality of Salomé is at the very core of this production, it is enticing, electrifying, and begs the audience to surrender to the beating rhythm of the music, to feel their body writhe with the flow of the dancer’s limbs. Naked flesh drawing us in to a feeling of vulnerability and exposure, it is erotic and makes me give a sigh of relief that I am watching this online in the privacy of my own home, without the beady eyes my fellow audience members watching me and how I react to what is happening before me (lets be honest, we all like to watch an audience from time to time).
In Wilde’s play of the same name, on which this production is based, arguably the most significant moment is when Salomé performs the Dance of the Seven Veils for Herod, and so it makes sense that the play lends itself well to performance entirely through dance. The story is relatively simple when broken down, and is clearly conveyed between the artists and the audience even if you happen not to know the ins and outs of the story, though I do feel you do need some understanding to fully grasp the full impact of the piece.
As an actor, trained in the power and meaning of words, it’s remarkable to see how powerful it can be when you take that away, especially given that Wilde’s work is so complex in its use of language. All performance is storytelling, taking its roots from those tales passed down from generation to generation in different ways by different cultures, and here is a form of storytelling which breaches the divide that usually excludes audiences who don’t speak the language. The language of the body is universal and can take on so many forms and convey so much emotion.
The set design, against the complexity of the choreography and orchestration, is simple and clear. It gives a blank canvas on which the scenes can be painted by lyrical movements and tableaux filled with meaning. Set in the round, the stage contains only a sloped block on which we are transported between the feast hall, the terrace and, most notably, the cell of Jokanaan, John the Baptist. The use of light and shadow to isolate this space is incredible. You watch as the breath enters and leaves his body, giving life to his beautiful form transfiguring before us in the confines of his cell, muscles yearning to move.
The choreography, superbly devised by principal performers Harriet Waghorn and Carmine De Amicis, combines various dance forms which allow it to contrast, or blend seamlessly, between scenes and give each moment a clearly defined atmosphere. Using groups of dancers to crescendo, blasting our senses, and then switching effortlessly into a solitary walk by one character, forcing our attention to focus.
The dancers bring life to their characters through impulses which spark movements and grow through the space, from one performer to the next, igniting a fire across the stage. Whereas the opening of the performance uses contact between dancers in abundance, when we arrive at the meeting between Salomé and Jokanaan we instantly understand the relationship due to the lack of contact, the avoidance of the eyes and the separation of the bodies as though they are two magnets, one moving closer causing the other to only recoil harder and more dramatically. Switching between gorgeous legato movements and rigid staccato breaks, the turmoil is clear and reads well.
I marvel at the sheer strength of these dancers, core control which allows them to maintain focus as they make each movement specific and timed just right. At no point does the action seem unrehearsed or out of control, though at times there is an unrefined quality that drives that intense passion harder.
The music, by Phillip O’Meara, is relentless and helps to move the action of the play onward, though at times repetitive to the point of annoyance. It swells as tension builds both physically and emotionally and then breaks suddenly which really leaves you breathless as you realise you’ve been unknowingly strung along.
The climax of the show introduces the colour red after being entirely black and white, and it is staggering. As you see the inevitable unfold before your eyes, you can’t help but feel as though the stage is washing with blood, leading conclusively to the death of Jokanaan. It was a very visceral experience and gave me very vivid thoughts of the first time I saw Caravaggio’s painting Salomé with the Head of John the Baptist at the National Gallery when I was a child. A striking scene that you just can’t look away from, detail in every stroke of the brush. To be able to achieve that drama with only bodies, no special effects, no prosthetics, just the language of movement is inspiring.
I think I will always be captivated by this story, but even more so after seeing this production. It gives me a new perspective, not just on the story, but on theatre and what is most important in how we tell our stories.
Above all it has made me realise that, whilst theatre has done incredibly well to survive through this pandemic – productions like this being amazingly well conveyed through online performances – I miss being in an actual theatre, surrounded by fellow participants in the social experiment of collectively living through something and breathing it together. Sadly, I can only imagine what this production would have felt like during it’s live run back in March, more gripping and exhilarating would be my guess.
Salomé is available to view online until 4th September. For more information and to book tickets, see the Cockpit website.