“Dance for me, Salome, I beseech you.” The final production in this year’s Lazarus Theatre Company residency at Greenwich Theatre (following on from The Tempest and Lord of the Flies) is a new version of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé. Based on the biblical story of Herod, his new wife (and former sister-in-law) Herodias, Jokanaan (John the Baptist), and of course Salomé (Herodias’ offspring from her first marriage), it sent shockwaves through society as it was prepared for the stage in 1892 and ended up being banned, the official reason being its depiction of biblical characters on the stage; the sexual undertones of the play were likely the real reason for its censorship, however.
Lazarus Theatre Company are continuing their focus on gender and sexuality with this production, bringing a male Salomé to the stage in their modern-day interpretation. He entrances everyone around him, including his step-father (and uncle) the tetrarch Herod; Salomé, in turn, becomes fixated on the imprisoned Jokanaan, who spurns his advances. When Herod offers Salomé a reward of his choice if he dances for him, Salomé jumps at the chance to get his revenge…
As a concept, there’s a lot to appreciate about this production. The gender switch of Salomé shifts the power dynamics, as well as adding a different dimension to Herod’s infatuation and the effect this has on Herodias. Though Herod is in “religious and political crisis”, in parallel with the modern world, shoe-horning in the phrase “fake news” is actually quite jarring and not at all necessary. Every now and then there are interjections from Jokanaan – often credited as ‘The Voice of Jokanaan’ in the text – which are performed in a more stylised manner, Hector Murray’s lighting design silhouetting Jamal Renaldo as he makes his ominous proclamations into a microphone and seemingly paralysing everyone bar Salomé (Bailey Pilbeam).
In resetting the stage for the second act and then performing the final sequence of act one again, it all feels a bit “PREVIOUSLY ON SALOMÉ“. I presume that the heavy repetition of certain lines throughout, as well as a good 10-15 minutes at the beginning with everyone onstage smoking (fellow asthmatics & smoke-haters, beware), is meant to help build up the tension and create a slightly uncomfortable atmosphere – so stopping for a break is incredibly counterproductive. It would pack more of a punch if it played straight through, steadily building to its bloody climax; the source material is a one-act play, after all.
It does drag a little towards the end, as Salomé and Herodias go round in circles with Herod about the exact nature of the reward, before he finally relents – and after that, Salomé’s rambling to Jokanaan becomes rather monotonous as we creep to a conclusion. It is as enthusiastically performed as ever, but I’m a bit on the fence about the play as a whole.
My verdict? An interestingly conceived production, but the play itself is on the repetitious side – enthusiastic performances and some noteworthy lighting design hold your attention.
Salomé runs at Greenwich Theatre until 25 May 2019. Tickets are available online or from the box office.