Oscar Wilde's Salomé is a classic Symbolist text and this production, with its dense atmosphere, obvious colour scheme, and detailed exploration of the original text, stayed close to these roots. Horsley has sculpted something beautiful, suggestive and powerful; it does its job as a bastion of the late nineteenth-century movement with aplomb.
There was an expansive, echoey atmosphere of impending doom which filled the RSC’s Swan Theatre, with Wilde’s evocative words reverberating across it. The opening scene, with the four men bewitched by and afraid of the moon set the tone; the evocation of an object not physically represented in the onstage world teaching us to imagine the play’s universe for ourselves, and giving power to the oppressive and dangerous exterior forces which the characters are so fearful of.
In presenting the dark text and its constant repetition of imagery, the mainly male cast excelled, sustaining a collective presence characterised by fervent intensity. Matthew Pidgeon's Herod had opulent vulgarity, his seedy infatuation with Matthew Tennyson's delicate Salomé offering as little respite as the rest of the piece. Suzanne Burden as Herodias was proud and loud, her sharp voice and commanding weightiness combining to imbue the character with edge. Andro Cowperthwaite as the page of Herodias stood out: his relationship with the Young Syrian (Assad Zaman) and the short but concentrated dance sequence which represented it were portrayed with an emotive lyricism, and his performance in general was carried off with elegant precision.
I'm afraid I do have an uneasy feeling about some elements of the production, in that it is unclear what Horsley is really saying in his casting of Tennyson (a cisgender man) as the eponymous heroine. It shouldn't really be radical to choose to portray a typically cisgender female character as trans character, and yet the nakedness in the famous Dance of the Seven Veils was presented in a way which seemed to invite shock, or at least wonder at the trans-ness of the character and her body. It has been hailed as an exploration of the fluidity of gender, but Salomé's gender isn't presented as fluid in this production, and the suggestion that it is seems a bit off. And anyway, why aren't we past casting cis actors to play trans characters yet (The Danish Girl, Dallas Buyers Club, Anything), especially in leading roles?! It's getting pretty boring. Should it not be a given that trans actors play trans roles?
Gender is such a huge part of the script and its thematic bulk that it makes sense for Horsley to have wanted to look closer at the gendered interactions between the characters, in a way which plays into a zeitgeist of the times. It just feels a little clumsy.
This is nevertheless a production with an intensity which is to be experienced, and a fascinating insight into the text, which is presented carefully and respectfully.