REVIEW: Oscar Wilde's Salomé weighed down by the RSC in Stratford

Ilan Evans (front left), Matthew Pidgeon (seated centre), Matthew Tennyson (front right) as Naaman , Herod and Salome. Picture: Isaac James
Ilan Evans (front left), Matthew Pidgeon (seated centre), Matthew Tennyson (front right) as Naaman , Herod and Salome. Picture: Isaac James

Peter Ormerod reviews Salomé, presented by the RSC at the Swan Theatre, Stratford

There is I suppose some sort of achievement in turning gold into lead. That is something for which this production can take unwanted credit.

Here we have the words of Oscar Wilde, a writer whose aesthetic sensibility is unmatched. We have the music of Perfume Genius, an artist who understands the power of the delicate, whose gossamer touch packs a heavyweight’s punch. We have one of the strangest and most disturbing stories the gospels tell. It is quite something to take these ingredients and make rather a mess from them.

The artless musical opening recalls nothing so much as something from We Will Rock You, the stage show based on the songs of Queen. It sets the tone: this is a disappointingly heavy-handed and lumpen show, singularly lacking in tenderness. Voices sing, but hearts are silent.

Wilde’s play makes much of the treachery of beauty and the soul-twisting nature of obsession. John the Baptist - here known by his Hebrew name Iokanaan, played by Gavin Fowler - is imprisoned by Herod. Salomé (gender-morphing Matthew Tennyson), Herod’s step-daughter, is entranced by this wild and apocalyptic prophet, who rebuffs her advances. Herod too finds him fascinating, but Herodias, Herod’s wife, is a dry enemy of romance and poetry, and despises Iokanaan. The unease culminates in Salomé dancing for Herod and demanding in reward the head of Iokanaan.

It says something that the presentation of this head on a silver plate, a moment of deep and grotesque horror, was met with laughter from some in the audience. So bumptious and brash had Owen Horsley's production been to that point that any real emotion had been blasted from the stage. Salomé’s dance had undeniable theatrical heft and was suitably compelling, but ended in gimmickry as veils fluttered down on the audience. And the fulfilment of her wish to kiss the mouth of Iokanaan was nowhere near as weird a scene as it could have been.

The play’s themes - chiefly how men and women see each other - feel especially pertinent, and the production at least had boldness, energy and conviction, while its 90-minute, one-act duration lent it a degree of intensity. But the suspicion remains that it would have been far more effective and affecting had it dared to do less, and done it with more subtlety.

* Salomé runs until September 6. Call 01789 403493 to book.