Edinburgh Fringe 2012
Not nearly enough people know that Oscar Wilde once produced a play based on the biblical story of the Princess Salome and her infatuation with Jokanaan (John) the Baptist. 1890s legislation prohibited the depiction of characters from the bible on stage, meaning that Salome would not be performed until Oscar was in prison as a result of a yet more serious break with prevailing morality. The play has never enjoyed the widespread appeal of his domestic dramas but a printed text, featuring pen and ink art by the celebrated Aubrey Beardsley, helped ensure the enduring appeal of this most lyrical example of Wilde’s genius.
Salome is the stepdaughter of the tetrarch Herod Antipas. She is living on a knife edge amid an unpredictable middle eastern court during the stifled chaoticism of the Pax Romana. Her incomparable beauty is already gaining unwelcome attention, not least from her intoxicated stepfather. Salome has become curious about the holyman Herod is holding captive in his dungeons. She tries and fails to seduce Jokanaan. When Herod offers her anything in his power (“even unto half my kingdom”) in order to see Salome dance, the contradicted cocquet demands the head of John the Baptist.
Time Zone Theatre is a new international theatre company based in London, which aims to encourage collaboration between British and international artists. Their interpretation of Salome is a successful fusion of beautifully crafted staging with maximised but minimalist sound and lighting effects. A strong, balenced ensable turn a little corner of Zoo Southside into a foreign field from an exotic land.
We enter to discover the cast already in position, scattered meaningfully around three mirrored boxes. This is a hugely physical production soothing every advantage to be wrought from a hypochondriacal space, prone to noise bleeds. Wilde’s somewhat lengthy script has been tailored to fit the time available admirably. The role of Salome’s mother has been left out entirely. The costumes are simple without being plain. Herrod is impressive and distinct but without undue opulence. Salome is buttoned down without being dowdy.
This production is not entirely flawless. There is an excess of dramatic…pauses in the first ten minutes and the sightlines, especially when Jokanaan is offstage, needed revisiting. The performances have not extracted Wilde’s juicer wordplay. At times the performances sail dangerously close to becoming monotonal. There is plenty of wailing and gnashing of teeth but few of the lighter melodies emerge.
Salome By Oscar Wilde is a beautiful piece of staging. Elegant, classy, emotive and emotional – cut down but never cut price. What has been lost and needs restoring however is the off-hand gaiety central to the enduring appeal of Oscar Wilde.