"She is monstrous thy daughter. I tell thee she is monstrous."
If you’re anything like me, the name Oscar Wilde invokes ideas of cucumber sandwiches, of sharp retorts and a certain handbag. It doesn’t make me automatically think of rampant sexuality, decadence and bloodshed.
But before writing comic classics like The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde penned Salome, a dark and brutal telling of the biblical story of the beheading of John the Baptist.
Headlong’s production of this provocative piece locates the action to a hellish looking gravel pit, grimy and black, all industrial scaffolding and banks of lights.
The large space is utilised to the full, with excellent choreography – it all looks very post-apocalyptic and provides many levels for the cast to climb and skulk, high and low.
Salome’s beauty and desirability is given quite a build up, soldiers salivating over the mere thought of her and terrified to gaze upon her too long. This motif is repeated throughout to great effect; Salome demanding Iokanaan (aka John the Baptist) look at her, her mother begging Herod not to. Ideal, really, in a production that you can’t take your eyes off.
When Salome (Zawe Ashton) does finally appear you’d be forgiven for thinking she’s a lost member of Destiny’s Child, all big hair and unzipped military jump suit.
Yes, she is sexual but in an awkward teenage way – it is like she is a little girl playing at being a temptress. When she demands the head of John the Baptist, it is with a giggle and a pout, she cries and stamps her feet. The much-anticipated ‘dance of the seven veils’ is a highlight – an R&B/Beyonce inspired version, the notorious striptease is rendered ridiculous in a bubblegum pink big.
Jaye Griffiths impresses as Salome’s mother Herodias, a woman tormented by her husband’s lust for her daughter.
As Herod, Con O’Neill bellows through his portrayal of the King who promises the world out of lust, only to be asked to deliver the one thing he dare not. There is a danger of him toppling in to Brian Blessed territory, but with his increasingly frantic attempts to ‘compensate’ Salome with treasures he reveals a man terrified and desperate.
Seun Shote’s chained Iokonaan is frightening and compelling, his infamous demise looming large throughout and is suitably grotesque when it does happen.
Director Jamie Lloyd goes all out in a production that is energetic and overblown. His Salome is dirty, lurid and bloody, and Wilde’s drama still has the power to shock nearly 120 years since first publication.