Oscar Wilde's Salome is one of his lesser-known plays, possibly because it is so starkly different from the romping comedies for which he is most celebrated. Expanded from just a few short verses appearing in the gospels, the play tells the story of King Herod's stepdaughter, who is spurned by John the Baptist and seeks revenge - with Wilde's subversive imagination filling in the gaps. In a nod to the ancient roots of the story, the language of the script is archaic, in contrast with the recognisable aphorisms of Wilde's characteristic dandies. This means that a bit of translation is required for the audience to be able to keep up with the story, so it is a credit to everyone involved with this production that they managed to convey the story in an accessible way.
Director Eve Stollery employed an ensemble cast to great effect: the original play lists thirteen named characters plus innumerate background characters, so paring this back to 8 actors was quite a feat, using their versatility skilfully to fit this performance into a small space, physically and temporally. There were several striking choices of staging, and indeed the whole production was a display of artistic skill. I was impressed to note, for example, that the atmospheric music had been specially composed for the performance by Gabby Woodward, whose pieces captured the setting with subtlety. Another interesting choice was in the set design (from Thomas Robertson): we would expect a King's palace in the first-century Roman Empire to be opulent, yet the simplicity of the set meant that our focus was, rightly, on the decadence of the characters themselves - even when, at the climax, the most gruesome prop is presented.
The play's early dialogue comes across as highly stylised to the point of being poetic, so the actors' challenge was to command this language in a way that seemed more naturally conversational. Eleanor Cousins-Brown, playing the Young Syrian, achieved this with convincing love-struck gazes, while Millie Tupper, playing his friend the Page of Herodias, did an impressive job of channelling a nervous energy to the urgent, entreating nature of her lines.
Sunny Roashan's Jokanaan/ John the Baptist was suitably dynamic, interjecting the dialogue with prophetic ravings with convincingly enjoyable venom. Undeniably, however, the star of the show was Salome herself: Katie Walton. Walton was every bit the spoilt, entitled princess whose desire clouds her judgement and prompts a descent into jealous obsession when she is scorned. Salome is a complex character whose motivations remain ambiguous throughout, and Walton held these tensions together well: her passionate outbursts were balanced with more calculating reflections to keep the audience mesmerised. No less mesmerising was the dance Salome performs, a joint enterprise between Walton and Kristen Cope, another demonstration of what can be achieved with an ensemble cast when handled ably and with spot-on choreography.
The greatest achievement of the entire company was to render a play that's over 100 years old, based on a story twenty times older than that, feel fresh and even shocking.