RSC Salome Review

Juliette Rowsell challenges the ambitious desires of Owen Horsley as he reshapes Oscar Wilde’s female-centric tale into an all-male performance reflecting, the struggle of its playwright.

Salome has always been a play intoxicated with its own mystery. But tonight in Owen Horsley’s production of Oscar Wilde’s most serious play, this intoxication is taken a step further. With Matthew Tenyson playing the biblical princess Salome, in a dress and pink stilettoes, the play (according to Horsley) sets out to tackle ‘the complex issue of what it means to be gay today’. Shrouded in symbolism with green carnations scattering the stage, a coded sign of homosexuality in Wilde’s day, it is a production that is perhaps too mysterious for its own good, leaving us curious even after its final scene.

The play’s music is its virtue and its vice. At times the play is sound-tracked with Radiohead-esque guitar compositions that firmly establish this as a play of the 21st century. But, when the play opened with a performance of Perfume Genius’ “Queen”, which snarls “don’t you know your queen?”, it sets a bizarre precedent for the night. Performed by a lone man in leather who becomes increasingly drag as the play progresses, this fishnetted performer seems out of touch from the play’s tone.

Image: RSC

‘No play reveals Wilde more’, said Steve Berkoff , who produced Salome in 1989. Yet despite this, the play reveals how much of Wilde we don’t know. Salome explores illicit desires, and the confusion, pain and heartache of such passions; it is a metaphorical rendering of the closet that Wilde knew so well. So when the leather clad performer sang “don’t you know your queen?”, we are forced to question how well we do know the adored playwright, and whether we can really understand Salome’s pain.

While the symbolism is present, the execution falls short: the effect is more Rocky Horror (which may have well been the aim), than of a serious discussion about LGBTQ rights, fifty years on from the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK. Despite this, the production hosts an array of beautiful performances: Tenyson gives a performance that stresses ambiguity, his voice soars between female and male registers, and he is, truly, a Salome of the 21st century. The play’s most mesmerising scene comes in its heart-breaking finale. Replicating Salome’s ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’, the play reverts to its very basics. Stripped of gimmicks, we are left on stage with a lone Tenyson, who clutches the blood-covered head of his/her beloved Iokanna. With his smudged pink lipstick and disintegrating feather boa, it is a powerful final image.

“production that is perhaps too mysterious for its own good, leaving us curious even after its final scene”

While the play hosts an array of fantastic performances, like Salome’s simultaneous male/female identity that is stressed when Tenyson rips off his clothes in Salome’s seductive dance, the play has a confused identity. Are we meant to treat Salome as a woman, or as a gay man with a confused gender identity? And the question we are left with is: what exactly does the play reveal about ‘being gay in the 20th century’?

Juliette Rowsell

(Image courtesy of I News)