Review: Salomé (Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon)

The RSC’s new staging features Matthew Tennyson in the central role in a staging which marks 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality

While Yaël Farber offers a ritualistic feminist reading of Salomé at the National Theatre, Owen Horsley‘s new gay version of Oscar Wilde’s 1894 play for the RSC marks 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

This production is not a biblical period drama but a contemporary re-telling with music from Seattle-based "reluctant queer-pop provocateur" Perfume Genius. It opens like a scene out of a 1980s-pop video – think Duran Duran’s "The Wild Boys" – with striking singer Ilan Evans in ripped black shorts, fishnets and boots climbing up a wooden tower. The stage bristles with testosterone as ripped good-looking young men in combats, white vests and boots dance to the beat, including Ben Hall who recently played Donald, Margo’s geeky love interest, in ITV’s hit TV show The Durrells.

And in walks Matthew Tennyson‘s waif-like Salomé in a silver satin slip, dark pink stilettos and lipstick. With his boyish elfin crop, he has a look of both Perfume Genius and gender-fluid Chicago musician and songwriter Ezra Furman. A huge blue moon shimmers behind stark wooden stacks. The moon has a big part to play in Wilde’s play – a leitmotif recurring throughout. Bretta Gerecke’s visually stunning staging reflects this.

Wilde’s lyrical one-act play Salomé grew out of his admiration for avant-garde French literature and the experimental drama of Paris. The biblical story of the Jewish princess, who danced naked before Herod and demanded the head of John the Baptist, inspired many French artists and writers.

Taking a break from her step-father’s alcohol-fuelled banquet, Salomé orders ranting prophet Iokanaan – a toned, muscular and half naked Gavin Fowler – out of his underground prison. It is not hard to see why she is instantly infatuated. But Salomé is rejected by Iokanaan.

Tennyson – winner of Outstanding Newcomer at the 2012 Evening Standard Awards for his role in the Donmar’s Making Noise Quietly – is excellent in bringing the visceral poetry of Wilde’s words to life. His Salomé has an intense fragility and steely inner strength. Her reaction to this unrequited love verges on self-harm before vengeance.

When Herod utters those fateful lines "Salomé, Salomé, dance for me", Tennyson appears in a white veil, the moon is bathed in red light and the sound of a beating heart reverberates through the Swan. As he strips off, pieces of veil-like chiffon fall theatrically from above onto the audience.

If anything, Salomé is slightly tamer than I’d imagined – fine for older teenagers – and although I get the significance of Perfume Genius’ 2014 album Too Bright it didn’t quite resonate. I enjoyed Matthew Pidgeon’s leery, sardonic Herod and Suzanne Burden’s theatrical diva, Herodias. Fowler makes a strong impression as Iokanaan and there is a good supporting cast including Assad Zaman, Andro Cowperthwaite and singer Evans – super-glamorous in full make-up, bodice and train.

Originally banned in Britain, this gender-fluid production of Salomé is a reminder of how far our country has progressed over the last 50 years, yet how people still suffer hate crimes for expressing their sexuality freely.

Salomé runs at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon until 6 September.