Radical re-telling of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé by the Royal Shakespeare Company

Salome. Image by Yaroslav-Kazakov Shutterstock.

Salomé, Oscar Wilde’s lyrical one-act masterpiece, is a popular choice this year with two productions at major theatres. However, The Royal Shakespeare Company is taking a radical approach to its drama by casting a man, Matthew Tennyson, in the titular role.

Originally banned in Britain, the RSC’s 75-minute play, which is set during the reign of Tiberius, is being staged to mark 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales.

Salomé is Herod’s stepdaughter, and, as seen by Wilde, is a powerful and enigmatic figure, both erotic and chaste.

The prophet, Iokanaan rejects Salomé’s sexual advances, and when she is compelled to dance by Herod, Salomé is filled by lust-driven revenge and demands Iokanaan’s head as payment.

This new production, directed by Owen Horsley, associate director on the RSC’s recent King & Country season of history plays, explores sexual ambiguity in the contemporary world.

Matthew Tennyson won Outstanding Newcomer at the Evening Standard Awards for Making Noise Quietly (Donmar). Recent theatre work includes Cleansed (National Theatre) and The Seagull (Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre). He played Lysander in the BBC One production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, adapted by Russell T Davies.

Iokanaan is played by Gavin Fowler, whose most recent RSC credits include The Winter’s Tale and The Taming of the Shrew. Gavin also played Edgar in King Lear (ATG) against Michael Pennington in the title role.

Seattle based singer songwriter, Perfume Genius, provides the music for the production. Material from his album, Too Bright, will be performed live by the RSC band.

Owen Horsley said: “Salomé is Oscar Wilde’s most controversial play, and Salomé as a figure, continues to fascinate and provoke audiences to this day.

“This production will paint the play afresh by casting a male actor – Matthew Tennyson – in the title role, a part that is usually played by a female actor.

“This portrayal will explore the ambiguity of gender and sexuality, and the anger, anxiety, mystery and chaos it can cause in the world.

“Some say this play mirrors Wilde’s own experience and desires as a gay man, and it seems interesting and timely on the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality to view this play through a gay lens.

“Using the music of Perfume Genius, a musician who explores the dangers faced by gay men in contemporary society, the iconic dance of Salomé will be filled with a brute force that reinforces her symbolic status of undying desire.”

Casting also includes: Andro Cowperthwaite, Suzanne Burden, Ilan Evans, Barry Gill, Robert Ginty, Ben Hall, Christopher Middleton, Miles Mitchell, Byron Mondahl, Matthew Pidgeon, Jon Trenchard, Johnson Willis, Simon Yadoo and Assad Zaman.

Salomé runs in the RSC’s Swan Theatre from June 2-September 6.

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