Sunday, 21 July 2013

Week Thirteen, Oscar Wilde's Salomé

21st July 2013 – Oscar Wilde’s Salomé at the Atlas Theater on H Street, DC

Salomé is not Wilde’s usual subject matter. The plot involves the step-daughter of Herod attempting to seduce John the Baptist and then encompassing his death by beheading when John rebuffs her. It was also originally in French, but the differences between Salomé and Wilde’s other plays go far beyond the original languages in which they were written and the contrasting subject matter. Whereas Wilde’s other plays are characterised by their playful, witty, lightness of touch, Salomé is much darker and, dare I say, the dialogue plods rather than frolics. Whereas plays like The Importance of Being Ernest are zany portrayals of pragmatic people, Salomé is symbolic and brooding, full of nightmarish imagery and weird, ominous repetitions. The moon is constantly alluded to and referenced in the dialogue, sometimes as a beautiful ‘silver flower’ or a virgin, but more and more ominously as the play progresses (regresses?) The moon was like a ‘mad woman searching everywhere for lovers’ (like Salomé), or as a pallid herald of death: ‘like the hand of a dead woman, covering her face with a shroud.’

Herod (Brian Hemmingsen) and Salomé (Irina Koval)
Salomé’s dance for Herod isn’t exactly erotic, and one can’t really imagine any genuinely red-blooded man going wild for it, but it is a beautiful, elegant expression of something. Maybe it’s symbolic of eroticism in the abstract. Herod (Brian Hemmingsen) is interesting too. He looks like a Sicilian thug but he talks with the subtlety of the Godfather. Only his leers toward his young step-daughter hint at the animal inside. John the Baptist (or Iokanaan as he is called here) is powerfully portrayed, but his constant shouted interruptions – no doubt symbolic of something or other - are the ultimate discordant mood-killer. The 1920s cocktail party setting makes provides a quality of Wildean sophistication in a roundabout way (well, Noel Coward-ish, which is close enough). But there is also a sort of 1980s vibe as well (and the 1920s setting contributed to that atmosphere – the 20s were big in the 80s). The stilted, symbolic language and stark staging are also in the vein of every BBC 2 arty television play of the 80s. The white face paint symbolically reflected the moon motif, but it also prompted memories of all those Pierrot pictures which were so popular amongst 1980s teenage girls (my older sister had a couple in her room).

So there were interesting aspects and some excellent performances, but I left frustrated.

This is a small theatre with a low budget and a cast of relative unknowns, so it would be easy to blame the shortcomings of this performance, and the disappointment of the viewer, upon the cast and theatre. But that would be a mistake. The strengths here - like the zesty coquettishness of Salomé, the eerie dream quality of the young Syrian - were due to the production. The main weaknesses were the work of Wilde. It is to his credit that he continued to experiment even after the seemingly effortless success of his ‘normal’ plays. But this is really not his best work.

Next week: The Book of Mormon at the Kennedy Center.

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