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Veils, switched identities and political prisoners in Salomé

Two very different interpretations of Oscar Wilde's play.

By Mark Lawson

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.

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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

This article appears in the 14 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel