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Salome review at Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – ‘a confused staging’

Matthew Tennyson in Salome at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Photo: Photo credit: Isaac James Matthew Tennyson in Salome at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Photo: Photo credit: Isaac James

As Yael Farber’s reimagining of Salome plays at the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company opens their production of Oscar Wilde’s 1881 version.

Reeling from unrequited desire, Salome dances for her step-father King Herod in order to exact revenge on the prophet Iokannon, who has rebuffed her. Marking the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, director Owen Horsley interprets it as a story of suppressed sexuality inflected by the writer’s personal experiences, casting Matthew Tennyson, a male actor, in the title role.

Tennyson, slight and fragile in awkward high heels, is a revelation. Tapping into the same vulnerability which made his performance in Cleansed so haunting, he speaks Wilde’s florid verse with a emotional directness, his face a constantly shapeshifting cocktail of doubt, longing and indignation.

Horsley’s production as a whole is less convincing. The actors have a tendency to declaim or speak in overripe sing-song voices, and the the text would have benefitted from further cuts.

The design, from Bretta Gerecke’s angular wooden structures to Kristina Hjelm’s garish lighting, is a mish-mash of styles which doesn’t quite cohere.

As an attempt to queer a canonical text, Horsley’s is an admirable gesture, but doesn’t go far as I’d hoped -–the welcome presence of Ilan Evans’ cabaret-style singer (performing songs by Perfume Genius) isn’t properly integrated into the production, and Tennyson’s casting has curiously little effect on the drama. Though well-intentioned, the queer elements don’t change or reorientate Wilde’s play in any meaningful dramaturgical sense.


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Matthew Tennyson shines in a confused staging of Oscar Wilde's poetic tragedy