Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A brilliant and repulsive "Salome"

The Headlong Theatre’s production of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” is scary stuff. Should an unwitting fan of the mainstream Wildean oeuvre venture accidently to the theatre expecting the usual wit and epigram, froth and bubbles they will be extremely disappointed. This is a repulsive play – and a very good one. Repulsive because it is unrelentingly pessimistic about the human condition - in the one Act all of the Seven Deadly Sins are on display and most of the Ten Commandments are broken by a bunch of characters as vile and abhorrent as it is possible to imagine. In Headlong’s new presentation the degradation is complete by a literal smearing of faces and bodies with filth - and by behaviour which is certainly not for the squeamish theatre-goer. It is a good play, and this is a fine production, because it has the courage to reveal mankind’s darkest side utterly uncluttered by any saving grace at all. There is every abuse you could imagine – of power, of position, of physical strength, of sexuality, of trust…you name it it is there.

Central to the success of this production is Zawe Ashton’s astonishing performance in the title role. She is convincing because her beauty shines through her self-indulgence and her malignancy. Only a woman as alluring could possibly secure what she wants from the all-powerful Herod. In Ashton’s hands Salome is a woman used always to getting her own way – before she appears the cast in thrall to her and as she appears she is from that moment central to the story and she commands the stage. The dance was truly erotic and her hubristic insistence on her reward - the head of Iokanaan – as believable as it was malignant.

Quite what Oscar Wilde was trying to tell us in Salome I’m not sure. It is so depressing a story and in some ways a strange one for him to have written just as his career as a playwright was taking off with Lady Windermere’s Fan. Could it be that in his own personality he saw the light and the dark is sharp relief – the urbane, witty and talented socialite on the one hand and the seeker of satisfactions in the darker corners on the other. Does Salome remind us that these dark corners, both real and in our souls, are ever present? Who knows?

So go and see Salome if you can – it is compulsively watchable if not a joyous evening. And you will perhaps rush to the shower when you get home to rinse the grime away – as no doubt that cast has to do every night!


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