Think Oscar Wilde and you’re almost certain to be in handbag territory. There’ll probably be some cucumber sandwiches about somewhere, and as likely as not a case of mistaken identity.
What you’re less likely to conjure up are images of extreme violence, borderline pornography and religious bigotry. And yet his early play Salome includes elements of all these things as Wilde experiments with theatrical form and the art of tragedy.
Telling the story of the stepdaughter of King Herod, whose notoriety stems from her demand for the head of John the Baptist as a reward for the dance of the seven veils, the play is lyrical, exotic and dark in the extreme.
Headlong Theatre – the artistic baby of renowned director Rupert Goold – gives it the full bleak treatment in this production directed by rising star Jamie Lloyd, who has also adapted the text for this 90-minute, no-interval version.
It’s set in a Mad Max-style future world, on a stage bordered by steel scaffolding and covered by a sandpit of black volcanic ash. Iokanaan – the John the Baptist character – is imprisoned underground, emerging in chains through a steel hatch to wail semi-incoherently at his captors. These include Herod himself, along with his wife Herodias and her daughter, the titular Salome.
Exploiting Herod’s drunken lasciviousness, the girl agrees to dance for him in return for his pledge of whatever she desires. Thus trapped, he is forced to give her the head of the prophet as the moon turns blood red and the world collapses in on him.
So far, so apocalyptic. Unfortunately, the concept doesn’t really hold together beneath the biblical or historical story, and it ends up being a stylised device that’s more about visual impact – impressive though this is – than illustrating any kind of message or meaning.
The normally reliable Con O’Neill is either suffering from severe laryngitis, or is wilfully delivering a bizarre performance rasped out in the upper reaches of his vocal range, resulting in a monotone rant which robs Wilde’s language of much of its efficacy.
Jaye Griffiths fares better as Herodias, part proud mother and part jealous rival, with every word crystal clear – a virtue not shared across the board in this energetic ragbag of a cast.
Crucially, Zawe Ashton as Salome is badly let down by the production, which forces her to play the teenage girl as a slutty, streetwise tart and transforms the pivotal erotic display into a crass lap-dancing striptease for her stepdad to masturbate over.
While there’s much of interest – including dramatic lighting (Jon Clark) and a stark set (Soutra Gilmour) – and Lloyd hints at drawing out something more powerful, the final result is full of sound and fury, but fails to signify anything much.