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The Theatreguide.London Review

Salome
Hampstead Theatre     Summer 2010

Unless you are atotal purist denying theatre artists any freedom to interpret a text, you will have to be captured and thrilled by Headlong Theatre's exciting new take on Oscar Wilde's Salome.

Wilde's version of the story of the dance for the head of John the Baptist is an archetypal piece of late Victorian decadence, mixing sex, violence and lush poetry in a heady brew, so that you almost smell the incense rising from the page as you read it.

Director Jamie Lloyd and the company take the audacious step of seeming to fight the text in this staging, actually creating a dynamic that brings out all its power.

Lloyd turns King Herod's court into a platoon of modern soldiers, part of an occupying army going slightly mad from the combination of boredom, danger and uncertainty about their mission.

Herod himself is played by Con O'Neill as a career NCO - a crude man, barely human except for a startling streak of poetry within him.

He was probably an East End hardman in civilian life, and carries a hint of real insanity that makes everyone give him a wide berth - think of Ronnie Kray or the Joe Pesci character in Goodfellas.

Zawe Ashton's Salome is the sort of sex kitten who should never be allowed anywhere near a group of homesick men, as she uses her sexuality for her own entertainment, with full awareness of her power but no sense whatever of danger.

Put together and given Wilde's over-the-top poetry to drive them both toward madness, these two characters rise toward a tragic stature that is only enhanced by the mundane modern surroundings.

What is particularly engrossing and attractive about this interpretation is that both of the central characters go on psychological and emotional journeys that we can map.

Ashton begins Salome as just this side of an airheaded bimbo whose response to Iokanaan's rejection is childish pique. But once the thought of vengeance enters the girl's little brain, it carries her across a line into insanity, a journey all the more dramatic because we don't quite see it happening until she's already there.

O'Neill is so strong as Herod that he almost turns the play on its head, bringing his character to the centre and making it all about this simple man, accustomed to ruling his simple world, who suddenly finds himself way out of his depth.

Not everything works. Over-amplifying Seun Shote's offstage preaching turns Iokanaan into a special effect rather than the third partner in what should be a dramatic triangle.

And when Salome gets to her dance, the pink wig and boom box are probably a bad idea - though turning the dance itself into a drunken, stumbling attempt at a strip tease is exactly right, bringing the two worlds of the play, modern and ancient, together in an evocative metaphor of decadence.

I'm assuming that anyone who goes to a production of Salome is not expecting easy light entertainment. If you're willing to go just a small step further and open yourself to Headlong's audacious theatrical vision, this will be a production that holds you at the moment and lingers with you long after.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Salome - Hampstead  Theatre 2010

 

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