Wilde’s one-act play Salomé has a controversial history: it was banned from British theatres when it was first translated into English from French in 1891 (censored due to an old law banning the staging of biblical characters) and, surprisingly for plays of that period, the script’s potential power to shock an audience has not waned. The themes in the play are dark and grim – the presentation of Salomé’s obsession with Jokanaan is visceral and animalistic, and her twisted relationships with both the tetrarch and her mother uncomfortable and unsettling.
With its rich language, biblical setting, and heightened emotion, the play seems designed to take the audience member into another world. This is something that Tea Party Productions really struggles with – the thrust stage and representative set made one constantly aware that what was being witnessed was a piece of theatre and constantly aware of the minutiae of the audience’s reactions. Certain costume choices were also jarring. Salomé and her mother’s plain dresses worked well but the more minor characters’ plain white shirt and black trousers had enough vague variation that the overall effect was poor. The trousers of Eleanor Cousins-Brown, playing both Herodias and the Young Syrian, were hemmed with lace in a distinctly modern and feminine fashion and she was wearing earrings that appeared to simply have been allowed to be left on having been worn throughout the day. The black shoes worn by the secondary characters in the play, alongside the white shirt and black trousers, had the effect of seeming like school shoes, adding to the strange ‘school play’ feeling that was also created by the representational set.
The play’s struggle to fully draw its audience in also lay in the scattered movement of the first scenes involving the Young Syrian, The Page of Herodias, and the first and second Soldiers. No-one stayed still for a moment, people were hovering, strolling and dancing around the stage in a way that made it difficult to gain an impression of atmosphere or place. This wasn’t helped by the frantic pace the play was conducted at, there was little pause or silence between the spoken text and even Jokanaan’s prophetic orations came at you like bullets. Undoubtedly the play would have been helped by capitalising on its quiet moments, and not brushing past them for moments of greater ‘importance’ or intensity. Some of this certainly could, however, be attributed to first night nerves. The potential for these moments was continual.
The consistent intensity of the play meant that some moments, such as when the corpse of the young Syrian was scattered in rose petals, seemed contrived and awkward. Two shockingly uncomfortable moments stand out. First, the section in which Salomé effusively praised the whiteness of Jokanaan’s skin, despite Jokanaan being played by Sunny Roshan, an actor of colour. Secondly, when Jokanaan’s severed head was brought out onto stage – a crudely painted hairdresser’s model head. The thrust staging did not help these moments as the audience could see their fellow audience members’ reactions.
They did manage to convey the intensity of particular moments effectively, however. The conversations between Jokanaan and Salomé (Katie Friedli Walton) held enormous weight. For this play to be successful it is imperative that the actress playing Salomé is captivating, and Katie Friedli Walton’s portrayal of the character – with her wide eyes and cold voice – was completely haunting. Her presentation of her unwavering obsession with Jokanaan gave the audience that unsettled feeling, as if contending with complete madness. A stand-out moment was the dance for Herodias, started and ended by Friedli Walton and completed by Kristen Cope. The movement was enthralling, and the chosen music worked well for a piece with no set sense of culture or place but a definite sense of non-western antiquity. It was the necessary moment where the audience felt fully drawn in to a world not their own.