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[Performance Analysis:] SALOMÉ (online).

I must start by saying that I personally enjoyed this performance, but my personal taste and critical judgement are very different things.

Sound design (by Will Thompson) and lighting design (by Ben Jacobs) combine with powerful vocal expression to produce intense and cleverly constructed scenes, such as when Queen Herodias (Pauline Babula) enters with the head of Jokanaan (Prince Plockey) or when Jokanaan himself prophesies. These are certainly powerful scenes, both visually and aurally.

With the minimalist set design (by Sorcha Corcoran) alongside rather minimal, sterile and passive stylised movement — movement only enacted where strictly necessary — audience focus is certainly directed towards speech and delivery, or, more specifically, towards the language and poeticism of the play. However, whilst this is good in generating a more familiar, language-based and perhaps haughty approach to Wilde’s original text, it does not allow for good transparency in the sociopolitical focus of this particular re-imagination.

Whilst I appreciate that the original text, as well as the figure of Salomé herself, has long been considered sites of exploration into sexuality and gender, or queerness in general, as most famously with Aubrey Beardsley’s cataclysmic illustrations, I find it difficult to appreciate the significance of changing Salomé’s sex from female to male in this performance. It is an overt, explicit and deliberate adaptation but not one that benefits narrative or supplements material, tone and meaning.

It is the company behind this performance, Lazarus Theatre’s aim to reimagine classic stories in a manner that benefits contemporary culture in all of its diversity. For this performance of Salomé, the company desire to produce a live work that speaks to and of the queer community. This is the reason behind Salomé’s re-gendering. In itself, the concept of changing Salomé’s gender is certainly subversive and transgressive, given the classical nature of this text upheld by the heteronormative and misogynistic Victorians at its time of publication, and the addition of our male Salomé being further ‘beautified’ by a Cinderella-esque ballroom gown certainly reflects trends in queer thinking and in certain beauty ideals, or norms, within the gay community, too. In these ways, I can certainly see how a queer audience could benefit, referentially if nothing else, from these adaptations. A male Salomé offers a great site for queer voyeurism and perhaps titillation, and voyeurism is a clear objective for director Ricky Dukes who also acknowledges that audiences have apparently confessed to desiring more male nudity from this performance.

However, I do not believe this objective is met. It seems to be merely the concept of re-gendering Salomé that is so poignant and resonant in this way; execution reaps very little avail. Voyeurism is not underplayed; it is nonexistent. There is only one hint at a potentially voyeuristic sequence, and this is the dance of the seven veils, a sequence that has been removed in Dukes’s version [more on this below]. What we are left with, then, is the mere presence and vocalisation of homosexual desire and unmarked transvestism, and this is not enough alone to warrant these changes and for this play to meet its objectives as an act of queer representation.

The decision to replace the dance of the seven veils with a ‘seduction[?] through games and role play’ is wholly questionable for me. These were far too busy. Combined with the mature and sophisticated nature of the text as well as its [for the most part] maintained poeticism, these youthful, playful, active scenes feel far too different stylistically from the rest of the performance, which, despite Dukes’s notable adaptations, remains markedly true to the original. Accompanied by classical music and a dark aesthetic, both unseen elsewhere in the performance until the end, this scene feels entirely separated from all other material. In all, it feels…silly…AND underwhelming. Certainly, there is in the game of hide-and-seek itself a notable sense of danger, of cheekiness and of upperhandedness [the sought has an advantage over the seeker, for they know where they are hiding], but this danger, which could certainly be read as lustful and impassioned, or, at least, coquettish, is significantly underplayed. The actions of hiding and seeking are performed far too literally and robotically, and understated, and so the ‘seductiveness’ of the game becomes replaced either by a sense of genuine competition or mere childishness.

It is because of how distinctly separate this scene is from the rest of the performance and because of what it communicates as a whole that I find myself feeling that material has been replaced as opposed to revitalised. The desire, it seems, was to have this classic text not totally re-imagined but refocused, to simply replace female-focused eroticism with its male equivalent, and so I feel that the company have slightly missed their mark here. This re-imagination means not that the text is revitalised and refreshed, with a new, queer life breathed into it; it means it is replaced with altogether different material that, ultimately, does not speak in its pure symbolism of gay/queer identities or culture at all beyond a man in a dress.

Therefore, I can understand why past audiences have felt that more explicit sexuality is needed, though I do not think male nudity, just more overt sexual expression. It is peculiar to me that there should be no overt sexuality in the movement or action of the play, and I think the replacement of this dance sequence is the biggest threat to working queerness out of this work. Talking about how beautiful someone is, in however much poetic detail, is not enough to equate the traditional, rather extreme, sexualisation of Salomé in past versions that one might deem ‘truer’ to the original text and its orientalist intents.

I mentioned that audience focus is placed emphatically on the language of the text, with dehumanised movement and overall stylisation, and this means that we identify with greater readiness the modernised aspects of Dukes’s adaptation. Successful modernisations usually require a total re-imagining of the context of the original text, along with language and character titles. This rings true for this performance. I do not believe this particular modernisation was entirely successful, because the text is only partially modernised, allowing for stylistic and semantic disconnects. To have Queen Herodias say, “Thy father was a used car salesman’, for example, just after King Herod (Jamie O’Neill) utters, “Thou liest”, confuses context and language. It causes the text to feel alien, not timeless and transhistorical but merely strange, disjointed and unsure of itself. Either all elements of the text should be modernised or none at all.

There is also a notable visual disconnect, too, when comparing the grotesque and chiefly theatrical makeup applied to Plockey’s body with the sleek, clean and rather naturalistic costumes (also designed by Corcoran) of the other cast members. This former almost feels too deliberate, intent on dramatic impact, and monstrous, and this does not combine well with Plockey’s intensely stylised movements throughout the entirety of the performance.

On that note, however, I do admire the stylised movements alone that Plockey has been directed to perform. These distinguish him well from the others, giving his character a spiritual/inhuman and otherworldly feel. I would just like to see a degree more constancy or rhythm in this movement; there is a tendency with Plockey to stagger this walking with every step but only slightly, unintentionally, and I believe it would be better to either be consistently moving, but in this same fashion, slow and unnatural, or to deliberately stop with every step [though I would recommend the latter over the former]. Vocal expression and delivery, however, a perfect from this performer Who retains excellent intensity and diction, sure of his character intents and meaning.

And this brings me on to acting. All actors perform with great conviction and energy. Movements are decisive, and vocal expressivity is excellent. Actors are all sure of their character intents and perform with appropriate realism, except for Omi Mantri (playing Young Soldier), who must work on his intonation, and Babula, who must work ever slightly on the same as well as breathing and timing. This is truly a wonderful and committed cast. Great performers.

Overall, this remains a very enjoyable performance but feels as though still somehow in its early stages. Powerful scenes are intense, and the poetic is certainly beautifully delivered, but overall aesthetics, significance and sociocultural focus are not yet sufficiently articulate.

“A performance with true potential and promise but still needing significant work.”


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