Hampstead Theatre, London NW3
Opened 24 June, 2010

Jamie Lloyd’s version of Oscar Wilde’s biblical drama, which arrives at Hampstead after a tour, bears what has become the hallmark of co-producer Headlong Theatre: an extreme re-imagining of a classic text. Here, the original fin-de-siècle aesthetic of decadence is replaced by contemporary political, social and moral decay. New Testament Judaea is presented in Soutra Gilmour’s design as a dystopia peopled by all races, but since the black sand contains puddles of crude oil it is probably Middle Eastern. Everyone wears battle fatigues, including the royal family; Herod here is a petty, tyrannical warlord, who molests the soldiers of his guard even as he salaciously eyes his niece and stepdaughter Salome.

The whole family is distracted: Herodias the queen is maddened with jealousy, and Salome herself has had her head turned (no pun intended) by a sudden infatuation with the imprisoned prophet Iokanaan. Zawe Ashton’s Salome is very much aware of the power of her sexuality, but is still too immature to understand fully how to use it; the dance she performs for Herod is so deliberate and effortful in its gyrations and pumpings, as if she is copying the moves she has seen on gangster rap videos, that the result is almost entirely anerotic as far as the audience is concerned. But it is not our response that matters, and Con O’Neill’s Herod is driven almost into a frenzy by it. Jaye Griffiths’ Herodias, meanwhile, looks on in horror until Salome makes her demand for Iokanaan’s head, when she begins to crow in triumphant approbation of her daughter’s exploitation of Herod’s promise. Seun Shote’s voice rings out periodically as the imprisoned prophet, his words and accent combining to suggest a militant Rastafarian, especially when he apostrophises Salome as “daughter of Babylon”.

This kind of setting allows performers to provide a welcome bathetic spin to the sometimes ludicrous poeticism of Wilde’s lines: repeated remarks about the strangeness of the moon become soldiers’ banter, and Salome’s rhapsody about the whiteness of Iokanaan’s skin can be ascribed to the extremity of her amorous delusion. Only by the final few minutes, when Salome speaks lovingly to the prophet’s severed head, are we sufficiently prepared to receive Wilde’s tone unmodulated, with all else silent and still.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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