The world of Salome couldnt be further removed from the chattering Victorian drawing rooms and stinging one-liners of Wildes usual satirical landscapes. For one thing, the subject is very, very old: Set in the court of King Herod, the work retells the famous Biblical story about the martyrdom of John the Baptist at the hands of the princess Salome, who demands the prophets head on a silver platter in exchange for performing a seductive dance for the king. For another, so is the language: Steeped in a ponderous, archaic English of thees, thous, and Behold! The Lord hath comes and packed with over-perfumed descriptions, such as She is like a narcissus trembling in the wind, the play features little of the authors characteristic wit. (Its not as if anything is lost in translation, either; Salome was originally written in French and translated by Wildes lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, but both versions sound equally pompous.) With the exception of Queen Herodias Lady Bracknell-like comment, I do not believe in miracles. I have seen too many, before sending a servant scurrying off to fetch her fan, the rest of the dialogue would be out of place in any of Wildes other works.
The problem with performing Salome today is that its hard to know whether to play it straight or do it Dame Ednastyle. The great temptation, given the authors reputation as literary historys greatest dandy, is to camp it up. In this respect, director Mark Jacksons production goes all out. At the center of the comedy is Ron Campbells show-stealing performance as Herod. Swaggering tipsily about in a crimson velvet smoking jacket with a garland of matching roses upon his pate, the actor seems to be channeling another famous Herod Josh Mostels in the 1973 movie version of Jesus Christ Superstar. Matched with Julia Brothers as the aloof and opinionated Queen Herodias (wearing a powder-blue gown and eye makeup with wings so voluminous they look like they might sprout feathers and take off, Brothers is a vision to rival Liz Taylors Cleopatra), the pair bickers hilariously like two old drag queens.
Yet at the same time, the production stops us from finding the kitsch characters and purple prose funny. As big as Campbells performance is, its also subtle: A marked vacuousness behind his bravura and ecstatic statements of happiness and one undone corner of a collar on an otherwise impeccably dressed picture of kingship are the only hints of the characters weak, desperate nature. As Salome, Miranda Calderon ought to be a comic figure. The characters constant demands (Give me the head of Iokanaan! Suffer me to kiss thy mouth, etc.) make her look like a spoiled little girl or a malfunctioning robot. Yet even in a girly, floaty flapper dress, Calderons deadpan delivery and strong physicality make us believe in her convictions. Far from coming across as capricious, this Salome seems as rooted to the Earth as an ancient oak. When Herod asks her to dance for him, the ensuing choreography is more frightening and alienating than it is erotic. Many of the awkward movements look like exaggerations of what they were intended to be. They should be funny, but somehow theyre not.
The effect of not quite knowing how seriously to take this play is disconcerting. Watching Salome, I found myself unable to distinguish between what I was feeling and an uneasy sensation that I ought to be feeling something else.
In some respects, my confusion could be a sign of artistic brilliance on the part of both the playwright and the production. After all, Salome is about the inability of humans to see things for what they really are, even as they cling to symbols. Throughout, characters grasp for metaphors in an attempt to make sense of the people and phenomena around them. Transfixed by the incarcerated prophet Iokanaan (whom Herod has imprisoned in a cistern but refuses to kill for superstitious reasons), Salome does her best to articulate her feelings: Thy body is white, like the lilies of a field that the mower hath never mowed. Thy body is white like the snows that lie on the mountains of Judæa, and come down into the valleys. The roses in the garden of the Queen of Arabia are not so white as thy body ... she drones on in a similar vein for several more lines. But no simile can help the princess express her emotions or elicit the desired response from the object of her flattery. Watching the characters fumble around, heaping comparison upon comparison, could be hilarious, but here its just disturbing. Jacksons use of invisible props, from wine glasses and cigarettes to pools of blood and the severed head, cleverly underscores the point the play makes about the hopelessness of metaphor: For unlike the characters poorly articulated fears and desires, we know what these objects are, even though we cant see them.
On the other hand, my game of second-guessing might hint at inadequacies in Jacksons vision and Wildes text. A neurotic, schizophrenic energy fizzes throughout the production its there in the jerky movements of the toadying servants, in Salomes mood swings, and in Ioakanaans sudden outbursts from the depths of the cistern, as well as in the constantly changing, violently colored lights and the spasms of sound. Its as if Jackson hasnt quite decided what he thinks of Wildes weird play. Salome staggers under so many directorial ideas that its often impossible to understand whats going on. Most baffling, for instance, is Jacksons decision to merge the character of the Young Syrian, who kills himself when he cant cope with the outcome of Salomes demands, and the executioner, Naaman. Joel Rainwater delivers a precise physical performance in both capacities, but with Jacksons hyperreal aesthetic and Wildes heavy symbolism, were not sure whether were supposed to view the characters as distinct beings or two halves of the same resurrected soul.
The bottom line is that its hard to stage Salome today. Playing it straight is out of the question when youre dealing with such things as a prophet babbling portents of doom from the bottom of a well and lines like Bring me ripe fruits. Playing it for fun alone isnt an option, either, because to do so is to skimp on the symbolism for the sake of easy laughs. Treading a middle way, as Aurora does, is tough and satisfying, but just as problematic. Like a metaphor, it ends up being a shadow of the thing it aspires to be.