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Veils, switched identities and political prisoners in Salomé

Two very different interpretations of Oscar Wilde's play.

When the UK’s two biggest subsidised theatres go head to head, it is generally with competing Lears or clashing Hamlets. More unexpectedly, the institutions currently have coincidental versions of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé.

This slight, minor Wildean curiosity (which the Irishman translated from his first draft in French) dramatises the biblical story of the daughter of Herod. Her ­father offers, after she dances suggestively for him, any prize; she picks the severed head of John the Baptist.

Both great state playhouses modernise Wilde to different degrees. Owen Horsley’s RSC production sticks with the original text but inserts several new songs by Perfume Genius (the Seattle-based musician Mike Hadreas); the Dance of the Seven Veils resembles a Madonna pop video, with Salomé flanked by young men wearing (not very much) leather.

At the National Theatre, Yaël Farber goes even further. She started with Wilde’s text but researched and improvised her way to what is billed as a “new play”, mixing in words from sources including Sufi scripture and Babylonian poetry. Set in parts of the Middle East that are now war zones, the play invites topical resonances that Farber somewhat thumpingly underlines with references to “occupation” and “displacement”.

Her Salomé (Isabella Nefar) seems as much a political prisoner as Iokanaan (Ramzi Choukair), this text’s version of John the Baptist, held by Herod in his cell.

Horsley’s staging also seeks such ­topical resonances – Herod’s guards wear the cartridge belts of today’s freedom fighters – but is more concerned with making the story privately specific to Wilde and later generations of gay men.

The title character is played by Matthew Tennyson, with any suggestion of gender-blind casting gone when, before the climactic dance, the actor shrugs off a silk slip and teetering red heels and stands naked, with Herod looking pleased rather than surprised that the seventh veil has revealed a penis.

This cross-casting feels justified because Wilde’s interest in veils, disguises and switched identities surely drew (even in as superficially light a piece as The Importance of Being Earnest) on his forced sexual subterfuge. Salomé, anyway, is a play that has trailed sexual danger. Maud Allan, acting in a 1918 version, was accused of indecency and even treason, leading to a notorious libel trial that popularised knowledge of the clitoris.

More recent productions have been alert to how the play ends with a woman being given a head, at least one actress simulating cunnilingus with John’s chopped-off bonce. But the male Salomé in this version offers a shattering new development when the virgin dancer kisses the mouth of the decapitated head, the scene becoming an ­illustration of Wilde’s claim, in “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”, that each man kills the thing he loves.

It’s intriguing to see where two directors working independently on the same material overlap. Farber follows Horsley in finishing with the dancer fully stripped, although, in this case, exposing the expected gender’s genitals. Both shows also have camp and comic Herods: Paul Chahidi at the National, Matthew Pidgeon for the RSC. In the same way as any actors playing the prince’s old friends in a production of Hamlet find it hard to avoid the comic gloss that Tom Stoppard put on them in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, it seems impossible for any theatrical Herod now not to channel the bouncy, flouncy persona of the character in Tim Rice’s and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar.

Twinned interpretations tempt theatregoers to play that game in which one XI is constructed from rival sporting teams. From the RSC, I’d take Tennyson as the dancing girl and Wilde’s text, which includes a very funny sequence of theological dispute that reminds us of the other kind of writer he could be.

Almost all of Farber’s words – which show the tendency of patchwork texts to lack a through-line – could go, but from her production would come the sound and music of Adam Cork (dominated by Arab ululating). And, as always in the work of the South African-born Farber – who has previously done thrillingly revisionist stagings of Arthur Miller’s Crucible and August Strindberg’s Miss Julie – there are stunning stage pictures, such as moments when falling sand seems, through lighting, to become water.

The RSC’s idea of revamping Wilde’s play to mark the 50th anniversary of the legalisation of homosexuality in the UK makes more sense than Farber turning it into a political tract. The problem is that ­Salomé is a play you’d think twice about seeing once, let alone doubly.

Yaël Farber’s “Salomé” runs until 15 July. For more details, visit: nationaltheatre.org.uk

The RSC’s “Salomé” runs until 6 September. Details: rsc.org.uk

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear