Oscar Wilde’s “Tragedy in One Act”, Salome, is a curio as a drama, and an icon as a cultural artefact. Wilde’s re-working of the martyrdom of John the Baptist as a modern myth on the overwhelming, destructive power of sexual desire now dominates cultural perceptions of the figure of Salome, largely through its influence on numerous films, and the Richard Strauss opera adaptation, which placed her permanently in the pantheon of heroine divas.
Considered as poetry and thematic explication, it’s easy to see why Wilde’s text has had such an impact. But as a play, its lush language, demand for exotic spectacle, and histrionic emotional tone are in equal parts exhilarating and dismaying. Was Wilde stepping out into what may have become, had he lived, a major contribution to theatrical avant-garde? Or is it merely another Victorian melodrama elevated by a verbal facility par excellence?
So it was surprising to discover that my visit to the recently-renovated Hoxton Hall held not a cabaret-style adaptation of the story, but a straight-forward production of Wilde’s text (if abbreviated).
Yes there’s some live music—actor-musician Annabelle Brown provides frenetic flute, whimsical accordion, soprano screeching and guttural moaning as moment and director require, sporadically joined by Tobias Deacon on the trumpet, and there’s faint, occasional attempt at audience-address asides from Konstantinos Kavakiotis’s Herod – but substantially this is Wilde’s play.
Hoxton Hall is a tiny Victorian salon-style music venue, not an Edwardian light-entertainment theatre: it’s a little sister to Wilton’s Music Hall in Whitechapel, and, like Wilton’s, has a flat floor for dinner and dancing, two wrap-around galleries and an awkwardly (in relation to the floor) high stage that was meant as a platform for an orchestra.
It’s a beguiling space, but a difficult one for plays. Director Anastasia Revi has sought to confront the challenge by placing much of the action at a huge and lavish banqueting table in the middle of the hall. One would have imagined that this choice renders the towering second gallery unusable, but I see the tickets up there are on sale on the website at a reduced price. My advice would be to avoid those.
Marketing materials, the director’s note—and the inclusion of Glen Miller’s In the Mood in the score—promise the “extravagant… atmosphere of the 1930s”, though costume and the references to champagne-and-cocaine decadence seemed more to evoke flappers of the Roaring Twenties. In any case, ‘cabaret’ is more the intended setting of the production, than the performance-practice being deployed, and it appears that this production in its multiple past iterations has been conceived for and seen in cabaret-room spaces. It’s possible something has been lost in the move.
For all its intimacy, the aforementioned height of Hoxton Hall requires enlarged performances, both vocally and physically. The result is that while gratification is everywhere being signalled, authentic desire is absent from the equation, which is reductive for Wilde’s text. The narrative arc is after all about unfulfilled desire.
Undoubtedly sexually precocious, at least by nineteenth century standards, 15-ish year old Salome instinctively yearns for the unseen body connected to the voice of truth emanating from the prisoner in the cistern, mentally dissects and fetishizes that body (in some of Wilde’s most lavishly erotic prose) when it is brought to the surface, and thereafter stops at nothing until she has kissed those lips, tearing down the social order in the process, only to discover, moments before premature death, that beautiful bodies, emptied of spirit, hold no magic after all.
Revi’s response to Wilde’s symphony-in-miniature on the madness of desire, is to take the madness literally and, it seems, omit the desire – or at least the suffering Wilde associates with it. She populates her world of decadence and excess with lunatics and hysterics.
Denise Moreno presents Salome as a spoilt brat prima ballerina with an infantile complacent self-centredness that put me in mind of Dolly Wilcox (Susie Lindeman) in the 1992 film version of Howard’s End. Annabelle Brown’s character, dressed as a flapper and almost entirely expressed through her musical performance, called Moon, is possibly an incarnation of Salome’s id, underlining Wilde’s heavy use of the moon as symbol for Salome’s capricious destructiveness. In the after-glow of the dance of the Seven Veils, Moreno’s interpretation shifts radically to an evocation of a truculent mail-order bride, before necessarily shifting gear again to grapple with Salome’s last-minute awakening – the highlight of her performance.
Wilde’s text places the decadence of Herod’s court as a decaying old order, buffeted from below, above, and every side, by a newly-arrived moral earnestness. Matthew Wade’s Jokanaan gives a surprisingly aggressive account of the prophet as swarthy, ranting lunatic in the attic, dressed in the ropes of his own bondage. This, along with the necessary omission of most of the portentous talk of the recent appearance of Jesus by a bevy of minor characters in the original script, has the effect of eradicating this sense of dichotomy between the old and the new, the decadent and the moral.
All these characters, including Jokanaan, inhabit the same moral universe of self-indulgent excess leading to madness. Indeed in this vision, Jokanaan’s dominating characteristic is his own sense of sexual/moral panic. The difference between him and Herod is that he’s appalled by his (supressed) desire for Salome, whereas Herod appears to be embracing it until it brings him undone.
Its perhaps not surprising therefore that Herod and Herodias (Helen Bang) offer a kind of rancid Eurotrash royal couple; middle-aged party goers on holiday who’ve spent a few too many hours at Gatsby’s mansion. They’re certainly not engaged in any political order or power-play here.
It’s by no means unreasonable to view Wilde’s play as a world populated entirely by grotesques. But his ambition for something far more profound is everywhere palpable in the text of Salome. As is his own stoic-epicurean split personality.
This production is the Wilde of Kettner’s and the rent-boys, absent the Wilde of the death-bed Catholic conversion.