Naaman and Salome

Ilan Evans as Naaman and Matthew Tennyson as Salomé. Pictures: Isaac James


Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon


In a season when the RSC is throwing new focus on the Rotten Romans, not least with its Cicero series this autumn, and is exploring not just pastoral, lyrical Shakespeare (Venus and Adonis) and that great prototype of medieval and modern comedy, Plautus (reworked, like Goldoni’s Plautine comedy One Man Two Guvnors, for today’s audience) it’s impressive that Artistic Director Greg Doran has made time to celebrate the 50 years since (in 1967) Harold Wilson and Home Secretary Roy Jenkins tore up a horrendous law dating back to the 1880s, and lifted the draconian ban on homosexual acts.

It is also, the 60th anniversary of Sir John Wolfenden’s (a former headmaster’s) Report which recommended decriminalizing homosexual acts. It took another ten miserable years for that to be acted upon.

Of the Romans, Doran writes ‘we continue to explore the politics, power play and corruption (of Shakespeare’s Rome). That triple definition could as easily be applied to the brutal treatment of gays since the middle ages (witness Henry VIII’s Buggery Act of 1533 - the year Anne Boleyn was crowned and her daughter, Elizabeth, born: the Tudors’ automatic death penalty abolished only in 1861).

It applies in Russia today (albeit sometimes shown a blind eye); and even worse, in India and Africa, and nastiest of all in Hitler’s concentration camps. Its suppression in the UK, especially since the early 19th century whereas the Victorians proved so enlightened at Finance, City planning and Commerce, was all about Politics: about stirring up and engaging the Vox Pop; about generating scandals like Cleveland Street (not just poofs but boys: horror); about the pointless domination of a minority by the smug or religiously obsessed majority; and about leeringly dubbing as vile, ‘corrupt’ and psychiatrically flawed any who embraced, let alone acted on, ‘the love that dare not speak its name’.     

Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, so famously turned into a searing opera (1905) by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannstahl (well before it was legal to stage it here), is a play about temptation, tantalising, abuse of power (Salomé as much as the Samothracian or Cypriot wine-bibbing Herod), incipient unbridled lust, resentment, revenge - and ultimately, mutual destruction.


Matthew Tennyson is sensational as Salomé

Written in or by 1891, in French, it was premiered in Paris in 1896 (Wilde was penning gay-championing ballads in Reading Gaol at the time), and finally, in private performances in 1905-6, in an English translation mostly by Wilde himself and illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley, which, despite an ongoing Lord Chamberlain’s ban, found its way onto the English professional stage in 1931.     

This RSC production, fabulously created by Associate Director Owen Horsley (Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V), had a lot to live up to. The sensual, often silently moved RNT staging by Steven Berkoff has passed into legend for its grotesqueness, its complete lack of moral compass, its slithering ghastliness. The name should actually be pronounced SalOme, the middle vowel being an Omega, but Berkoff famously ignored that, emphasing a breathy dactylic SAlome, as here. In Hebrew it’s Shlomit - related to ‘Shalom’, ‘Peace’. How ironic is that?

Her dance took place, it is said, when she (born c14 AD, the year of Augustus’s death) was aged 22, by which stage she was already married. And she also lived on with a second husband till between 60 and 70 AD, whereas John was executed between 31 (more likely) and 36 (less likely). So ‘Kill that woman’ is a Wildean literary licence, echoed to palling effect by Strauss.

Yet actually the RSC has come up with something equally original and daring, and not just because young gay actor Matthew Tennyson (a sensational Salomé) more than momentarily gets his kit off below the midriff and shows us his exquisite modest parts (compare Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rimbaud in Total Eclipse) as the climax of what was, till then, a rather feeble, unseductive Dance of the Seven Veils; but because every move, every gesture, and generally each use of the Swan Theatre’s varied rear and audience entry points,, is so beautifully mapped out.

Especially those of Salomé herself. Tennyson has a vast range of demure, lingering poses and almost apologetic, head-hanging deportments that make him seem like a reined-in Hamlet, a Cordelia, a shy little girl-boy whose full awfulness, implied by her passion for Jokanaan, only surfaces near the end; by which time Tennyson’s growing insistence and subtly choreographed voice – by which I mean his control of pianissimo to deafening dynamics (‘Bring me the head of Jokanaan’, uttered nine times, is as terrifying as the news of the offstage execution itself) have astonished us by their variety and versatility. Here, we sense, is a tyrant queen in the making, a Cleopatra turned vicious, a Gertrude, a Goneril or Regan, even a Lady Macbeth.


Assad Zaman as the captured Syrian boy

Horsley has worked with Tennyson to calibrate several most gobsmacking crescendos. She is truly the daughter of her manipulating mother (a wonderful and latterly bloodthirsty, mocking showing from Suzanne Burden: ‘That is well said, my daughter’), marvellously dressed in consistent greens and luxurious wrap by Canadian Designer Bretta Gerecke, whose credits aptly include the International Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario); but far more sophisticated than her slobbering father (Matthew Pidgeon, serving up an impressively inebriated, belching Damien Lewis-like performance, and, surrounded by a foursome bunch of fawning acolytes (though not catamites) – plus one nasty, suspiciously Commissar-like Roman (Johnson Willis). The quartet’s singing as a small chorus is one of the best musical touches in the show. Their speaking (all Northern accents) is nicely gauged too. 

Assad Zaman (who understudies Tennyson) as the lovestruck – and in despair, suicidal – Narraboth, a Syrian lad captured and made Captain of Herod’s Guard, got the show off to a tremendous start. Wilde reserves some of the most gorgeous poetry for him, the doting lad who gazes at Salomé like a Cherubino as if she were as beguiling as the moon (the latter plays a key role in Gerecke’s overall design, in Kristina Hjelm’s Lighting plan, and in Salome’s own dreamy musings) and risks losing his own head for hubris.

Notable, too, was the scene where two Nazarenes (John the Baptist’s sect) intervene to express their disgust and horror at the disdain with which their fellows treat the prophet imprisoned below. Christopher Middleton (Herod’s understudy; I guess he would carry that off well) and Byron Mondahl, a real Shakespeare pro (one might almost say groupie, with at least eight of the bard’s works and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare - in South Africa - to his credit) made this short, outraged scene particularly memorable. At least someone was on the good side.  

There is a strange effect when we first hear Jokanaan (or Iokanaan, here) call up from his cage below. It sounds like a light tenor voice, not Gavin Fowler’s Jokanaan at all: and one feared for what might follow. But Fowler has both a powerful presence and a mighty baritone voice too. He arrives hectically, scampering bulkily up one of the many ladders and scaffolds with which Gerecke litters the stage (they are in fact a Leitnmotif of her productions elsewhere).

John has a mighty, well-diaphragmed torso, dirty, indeed almost Middle Eastern (which leaves one puzzled why Salomé should refer so ardently to the ‘whiteness’ of his body: ‘Thy body is white like the lilies of a field that the mower has never mowed; like the snows that lie on the mountains of Judaea. The roses in the garden of the Queen of Arabia are not so white as thy body... There is nothing in the world so white as thy body. Let me touch thy body.’  


Gavin Fowler as Iokanaan

Well to all of us in the audience, his body was brown. Yet the useful paradox here is that we begin to question Salomé’s mind.  Is she starting to lose it? Was Herodias’s daughter, and the Tetrach’s daughter, ever a normal child? Is her obsession the offshoot of some mental deficiency or at least teen awkwardness? Is St. John an honest, honourable, priestly, surrogate father, who reprimands both her (and she likes it, revels in it) and the remarried Herodias (‘the bed of her abomination…the bed of her incestuousness’) ? Should she get herself to a Nunnery? Or ought she, not Jokanaan, be locked up – albeit benignly – in a cell, a remand home, for emergent, prurient teenagers?

When they bring in John’s head on the required charger (silver platter) for Salomé to nurse, caress and – her obsession – to kiss, it looks just like him. Good on the Props makers (as often they don’t). And Horsley’s idea of bringing John back at the very close as a winged angel (but notice, a black- winged angel) aloft, both benign and judgmental, is an amazing touch, typical of this pensive, daring, cleverly mapped staging.

Herodias has a page, who is in fact Narraboth’s chum. Liverpool-born and Drama School London (Central St. Martin’s) -trained Andro Cowperthwaite turns this attractively dressed young figure (more greens) into a modest but significant presence: never more so than at the moment of his Syrian friend’s early death, but also a notable, largely benevolent figure onstage thereafter.

The character I had most problems with was Naaman – nominally (and presumably) the hooded executioner, but primarily used as a solo pop singer, whether alone or with band. The row at the start (heavily miked) from him and the orchestra, playing inanities (Perfume Genius/Mike Hadreas), presumably chosen - if one could only hear any of the words amid the incessant blast – because Hadreas ‘has emerged as a powerful voice of gay identity, addressing issues of homophobia, abuse, addiction, sex and love with uncommon (?) honesty, in a voice that makes his work resonate so widely. Hmm – maybe. Let’s at least say that here it certainly resonated, mostly, although not always, imbecilically. Elements of the musical decoration or filigree (five instruments) sound plain pathetic.

The joy of the show, not surprisingly, is Matthew Tennyson’s Salomé. We see him first, clad in the almost see-through dress he wears for most of the show, scudding across stage like a mildly deranged Ophelia. At that moment he takes no notice of, does not see, the cast onstage. He is vision, and so tantalizingly fleeting, a scrumptious one at that.

And this may be important. Something Tennyson captures so wonderfully, in effect epitomizes, is Salomé’s isolation. Her passion for Jokanaan is, at the outset, no more reprehensible than the young Syrian’s idealization of, or yearning for her. She’s a teenager, or just out of teens: she’s allowed a crush. And when a strong, muscular, rough-bearded, social class indefinable figure turns up downstairs, a declamatory prophet, the very opposite of the pathetically fawning courtiers, how could she not ache, quiver in her little still sexless body, and feel drawn to him?

herod and salome

Matthew Pidgeon as Herod with Matthew Tennyson as Salomé

So add to that that Tennyson is a boy, feeling passion for an older man, as many a gay teen of a certain leaning must have done, and suddenly the layers emerge and merge.

She’s also a poet, just as Berkoff’s Herod was: ‘How good to see the moon! She is like a little piece of money. You would think she was a little silver flower. The moon is cold and chaste. I am sure she is a virgin, she has a virgin’s beauty. Yes, she is a virgin. She has never defiled herself. She has never abandoned herself to men, like the other goddesses.’

Mallarmé could have written that; so could Genet. A strange piece of purity from someone who so aches to discover, learn and practise, impurity. It’s as autobiographical as it is revealing. And why this yearning for Jokanaan’s mouth? Is that the ultimate submission - bar gobbling his genitals? Or more likely it’s this: that they are ‘like a pomegranate cut in half’: a delight to suck, juicy, life-giving.

Though wait a moment, this is a tribute to the repealing of anti-queer legislation. Tennyson’s performance, often enough in teasingly pink high heels (gay community, give a cheer) is not just exquisite (his every stance – demure, challenging, ominously reflecting, is a work of art).

It’s proud, friendless, disturbingly and unnervingly sexy (as it’s meant to be), and ultimately ghastly. When early on he kneels and peers down into John’s abyss, we feel the sap rising and the danger increasingly imminent. In almost every scene he isolates himself (or Horsley isolates him) – at side stage, frontstage, rearstage, into the stage left audience. He seems somehow ashamed, diffident, timid almost. And his negligé, which quivers in time to his hips, hangs timidly over his slender, carnal, covetable, craveable after, girlish frame.

It would be the same if Matthew Tennyson were actually a girl. We could do a Narraboth – long for him/her, lust after her, adore him, respect him even, and Tennyson’s acting deserves utter respect, from that first entrance to that tritely directed ending, as Herod yells ‘Kill that woman!’ – note that at last Salomé has triumphed by being classified not as Princess of Judaea but as a woman’ – and triggers a lights cut (Hjelm’s lighting, especially the spotlighting, was superb – and relevant – throughout, till now) and scissors out our view of Herod’s men crushing her with their shields. A metallic stoning. What a disastrous decision.

Tennyson’s gorgeous, fabulously evolving Salomé gathers to himself burgeoning authority almost as if this were a catalogue of youth, and as if he were progressing from 13 to 18 (at poutier moments Salomé’s insistence sounds more like seven, or three-and-a-half). She has become awesome enough, vile enough, still weird and abandoned enough, to merit being scotched like a snake, a rat, a reptile, or a mentally handicapped child doomed in one of the first of the Nazis’ catalogue atrocities.

Yet by the end, (s)he is momentarily a triumphant, victorious potentate. Paradoxically his/her death at 22 (or more likely 18) echoes the illicit and painful coming of age of the 23-year-old Edward II, yet shades too of the tragic 15/16 year-old Prince Arthur in King John.

Tennyson’s final obliteration is the death of a girl-boy; transgender in fact. Are we perhaps grieving – as we should grieve - for something even closer to the bone? No wonder Wilde, as Doran implies and Horsley shows us, has ramifications far beyond his overt subject matter. To 06-09-17

Roderic Dunnett


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