Owen Horsley has taken the bold step of casting Matthew Tennyson as literature’s epitome of unbridled passion and desire, Salomé, in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 90 minute production which opened in the Swan Theatre last night.
We’re obviously not reading from the same page. The dead-eyed, flat chested, Tennyson, flouncing around in a silk slip and pink stilettos, is supposed to be the incarnation of seductive lust and manipulative power. Instead he whines and pouts like a petulant child.
“I demand the head of Iokanaan!” he repeatedly screams until his infatuated step-father, Herod, relents.
It’s a bold step to cast a man in a female role, hanging the premise on the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, and Horsley doesn’t pull it off.
There is nothing presented to suggest that Tennyson’s sterile interpretation would arouse anyone of either sex.
Playwright Oscar Wilde, ever playful and minded of the law at the time, drops numerous homoerotic lines and direction into his one-act play but Horsley’s gender tinkering isn’t enough to create a convincing adaptation.
What he is left with is weak, muddled, robbed of all sexuality, male and female, and the poetry of the original story.
Salomé, whose reputed beauty causes one soldier to kill himself (yet barely anyone notices or cares), is instantly attracted to a filthy prophet, Iokanaan, who lives in a storm drain. The precocious and pampered princess is shocked when he rebuffs all her attentions.
Well aware of her step-father’s unnatural interest in her, Salomé sees a way of getting what she wants when Herod demands that she dance for him.
The play’s climax is the Dance of the Seven Veils, historically a dance so wildly erotic that it whips Herod, and his lascivious male court, into a frenzy of desire and wanting.
Yet we are presented with Salomé, with just one veil, which looks like an opaque tablecloth, over her head who girates her hips, thrusts her groin a few times like a pole dancer and struts clumsily about the stage.
It’s poorly choreographed, lacking in six veils, and is not in the least arousing. How could Herod be so easily pleased?
Matthew Pidgeon, at least, injects some passion into his role. He is splendidly frenzied as the obsessed and hedonistic Herod.
Wide-eyed and sweating profusely the infatuated king has promised Salomé anything if she will dance and now wheedles and begs her to renegotiate. It is about the only animated moment in the entire production.
Listening to Ilan Evans, rocking a Goth black leather look – and later heavily made-up and with a frou frou train – singing songs from Perfume Genius, was, for me the only highlight in this barren production.
Salomé runs in the RSC Swan Theatre until September 6.
Owen Horsleys bold reinterpretation of Salomé fails to convince in a muddled, sexless and wildly unerotic production at the RSC.