As far from Oscar Wilde’s trademark drawing-room comedies as it’s possible to get, the text of his rarely performed “Salome” should come with a warning: not for the fainthearted. That applies not just to audiences but to production teams who need boldness of vision and serious stage-craft to bring off this Symbolist nightmare. Jamie Lloyd’s high-risk, high-voltage new production for Headlong theater company certainly won’t please all comers but it slowly reveals impressive rigor.
Veering wildly between exoticism and eroticism, Wilde’s overripe prose is a classic case of when it’s good it’s very, very good and when it’s bad it’s torrid. Lloyd uses that as a springboard for his production. Faithful to the play’s lust and longing, he nonetheless turns textual suggestion into something aggressively overt.
Nothing is left to the imagination on Soutra Gilmour’s oil-soaked, soil-covered, iron-framed set. The soldiers are still there but out go shields and uniforms in favor of a grunge-meets-combat-gear aesthetic. When not prowling and preening, stomping and swinging from steel ladders, they’re smearing semi-naked bodies in dirt.
Ben and Max Ringham ever-present industrial-sounding score, backed by the thump of a dance beat, sets the mood of anger and foreboding. That’s punctuated by Jon Clark’s fiercely directional lighting that ignites the action by blasting shocks of hard white light from serried ranks of lanterns ranged across the black space.
Appropriately enough in a piece most famous for a dance, there is a debauched dance style to the entire presentation. Alive to the contemporary political difficulties surrounding watching a woman stripping, Zawe Ashton’s pouting, thrusting, wannabe-sex-kitten of a Salome performs the dance of the seven veils in an almost fast-forward, highly conscious style. Presenting the promise of her body upstage to Herod (a ferociously masturbating Con O’Neil) shows her using what little power she has while not succumbing to audience titillation.
Lloyd, who has wisely edited the text, encourages his highly energized cast to find moments of abrasive comedy. Herod’s rampant bisexuality raises welcome laughs as he not only grabs every passing crotch but wickedly lights up over what he finds there.
Indeed, in this production you could argue that the show ought to be retitled “Herod.” Writhing with near-incestuous lust, O’Neil risks alienating audiences. He tears into the role, hurling himself about the stage and squealing in ecstasy. But just when you think he’s blown it, he switches from screaming near-madness to balletic grace, cutting capers in mid-air and dropping his voice, chillingly revealing Herod’s vicious control.
The production has overblown moments filled with sound and fury that signify nothing like as much as it intends. Ironically, Iokanaan’s miked-up roarings are so thunderous that they dissolve into generalized ranting and lack power. But by the horrifying climax, it has become clear that nothing succeeds like excess.