To see me is to love me

There are few commands in the Western canon more familiar than Salomé’s desire for the head of John the Baptist. It captures such a striking moment that it plays out again and again in art, such as Caravaggio’s Beheading of Saint John the Baptist and Titian’s Salomé.

In the Biblical tale, it is Herodias, Salomé’s mother, who is responsible for the request, urging Salomé to ask it of Herod after she “danced before them and pleased Herod” (Matthew 14:7 – yes, I had to look that up). It is Oscar Wilde who gives us the tantalising “dance of the seven veils”, and Salomé, not Herodias, the murderous urge towards the prophet. In Wilde’s version, Salomé is driven by her frustrated lust and is granted the power to kill by the lust that Herod in turn has for her.

Theatre Libre’s Salomé, directed by Kaitlin Argeaux and currently at The Space theatre in London, should be praised for its ambition and intelligent interpretation. The blend of dance and traditional theatrical staging emphasises the physical, performative aspect to sexuality highlighted by Wilde’s script, and also serves as a platform to explore Salomé’s internal emotional state. The modernised design and framing of Salomé as a kind of pseudo-Kardashian selfie-star also serves to link Wilde’s 19th century, biblically-inspired tale with the present day. The execution of this idea is uneven, but there is real depth in the direction, design and some performances.

Upon entering the theatre, one immediately notices the interesting stage area – a shallow seating area with a floor level stage, with stairs up to a platform about 10ft high. The set, designed by Rachel Ryan, provides screens used cleverly for projections which establish the fame of the central family – Salomé (Liz Weber), her mother Herodias (Cheska Hill-Wood), and her stepfather/uncle Herod (Christopher Slater), who is usually referred to by his title of Tetrarch. The screens are also used throughout to illustrate the state of the moon, a recurring symbol in the play, and cleverly supporting Salomé’s central dance with an animated shadow sequence.

The play opens with a silhouetted dance to eerie music. The sound design by Spiros Maus is one of the consistently strong elements throughout the 90 minute performance. Gregory Jordan’s lighting design, possibly affected by limitations within the space, is usually good, but sometimes jarring in its shifts and a little overdone.

The first dance itself, performed by Salomé, Schirazade (Sofia Amir), Jacob (Alex Marlow), and the Young Syrian (Tom Swale) was a fairly accurate prologue to the play, suggesting not just the theme, style, and tone, but the skill with which it is performed.

The play is a blend of quality performances and those which simply lack heart, depth and conviction

The initial choreography, which is clear and deliberate, expresses the idea that Salomé’s behaviour and persona is learned – the way in which her sexuality reveals itself is a function of her performing to the standards of others, rather than coming from inside herself. As my companion later noted, this idea in choreography – a dancer mimicking movements that another dancer dictates – isn’t exactly new (she commented that she’d seen it endlessly on dance-based reality shows like So You Think You Can Dance); however, it is well suited to the director’s underlying interpretation.

The performances in this first dance give us a hint, too, of the quality of what follows. Weber is excellent, and moves with precision and expression. Amir, too, handles the opening choreography well, though unfortunately it’s the last time she appears truly comfortable on stage. Marlow and Swale, though focused, are sadly quite stiff, and their lack of physical fluency is thrown into high relief by Weber and Amir. The play overall is also a blend of quality performances and those which simply lack heart, depth and conviction.

Liza Weber as Salomé, in this dance and throughout the play, is very impressive. Her movement throughout is intensely connected to her character’s mood, thoughts, and impulses, and her delivery of the text is beautifully balanced. She captures a fascinating blend of burgeoning sexuality and childishness; at once a young woman overcome with her own desire, becoming aware of the influence her beauty and sexuality gives her over others, and a petulant and childish girl in the way her wants are expressed.

Unfortunately, only Hill-Wood as Herodias really keeps up with Weber. Marlow, Swale and Amir (when not dancing) deliver the dialogue like they’re not entirely sure what they mean and the heaviness and portentousness of the tragedy is undermined by their lack of depth. Swale commits a very dramatic suicide centre stage quite early on in the piece, which is simply not credible. Both his half-hearted despair and the underwhelming reaction of Amir and Marlow, at best an awkward kind of disappointed sadness, make it impossible to take what is a very intense moment seriously.

I am struck by how Weber’s physicality seems to broadcast the vulnerability of the human body, while avoiding the suggestion of frailty

James Barnes as Jokanaan (the Hebrew of the anglicised Saint John), is better – with a bit more heat behind his prophetic declarations, though his interactions with all other characters seem entirely one-sided. For instance, the staging clearly implies that Salomé’s attempts to seduce Jokanaan are meant to be quite heated moments, and I would have very much liked to see some kind of internal struggle before Jokanaan denies her, but Barnes is all one-note, almost like he’s on pause between his lines. Weber does her level best, but moments like that need two participating actors. Barnes needs to let loose, to let Jokanaan’s divinely inspired fire give him a bit more mortal fire too. (He’s also burdened with a noticeable wig – I understand the importance of hair in the script, but I would have preferred to see something more natural given the overall design.)

Christopher Slater, our strutting, leery Herod, is also quite good. In another play, in a comedy, he would be great or possibly exceptional. His stage presence is impressive; he does lovely work with the text, making it feel fresh and immediate. But he has, to a far lesser extent, the same problem as Marlow and Swale. There is not sufficient depth for tragedy. After the Young Syrian stabs himself, there is discussion about what to do with the body, declamations about it being an evil omen, complaints about the blood on the floor – this should strongly affect the audience. We should feel Herod’s fear, see clearly the anger and bluster as a cover for genuine panic. Instead, he seems peeved and inconvenienced.

This contrasts with Cheska Hill-Wood’s understated and precise Herodias, who has the same freshness with her lines, but whose emotions never seem undersold. In this interpretation of the play she isn’t asked to reach furious or panicked heights – her aloofness towards death is meant to underscore how cold she is, not indicate that death isn’t really a big deal. Slater’s Herod should be doing all the freaking out that Herodias doesn’t. Even during the sturm und drang of the moment before the death is ordered, where Salomé and Herod have a very extended back-and-forth, Slater never goes quite far enough.

The dance of the seven veils, the climax of the play, deserves particular mention. Beautifully structured, the dance begins as the famed performance for Herod. It then evolves – light, sound and choreography telling us this is now inside Salomé’s mind, showing a kind of battle for her soul. We see that by deciding to dance for Herod, for choosing to use his lust for her to gratify her murderous urge, something inside her breaks. I see references to incest as well as lust and the clash of those forces. The sexuality in her dance becomes a struggle for the survival of her self – and she loses. Even if Herod didn’t order her death at the end of the play, it is clear Salomé has already in some way died. It is an excellent dramatic conceit, and the performance, as a set piece, is intense, memorable and affecting. I am struck by how Weber’s physicality seems to broadcast the vulnerability of the human body, while avoiding the suggestion of frailty.

Salomé follows her mental breakdown of a dance with a grotesque fondling and kissing of Jokanaan’s head, combined with dialogue that brings home the director’s feminist theme.

Salomé is the harlot, the wanton, the princess – she is fulfilling the fantasy she’s been sold, and if that is insufficient, what else can she do?

“Look at me,” Salomé says to the head, “Me thou didst never see (…) to see me is to love me.” Here we are reminded of the cliché that women are for being seen by men, men are the ones whose seeing gives value to the women. So of course Salomé is the extreme of that idea – if she wants to be seen by one who refuses to see her, what is the solution? If her only power is through men seeing her sexually, how can she leverage that agency to get what she wants? She is the harlot, the wanton, the princess – she is fulfilling the fantasy she’s been sold, and if that is insufficient, what else can she do?

Despite the strength of the dramatic conceit and the narrative, the denouement suffers from timing issues and the inability of the other actors to reach tragic proportions. Salomé is left throwing herself and Jokanaan’s head lustily around the stage for way too long – every credit to Weber for making me buy it, but I confess I peeked at my watch.

This probably felt longer because of the failure of the other performers, but Slater in particular, to react appropriately. He says, “She’s monstrous,” but I simply don’t believe he means it; everyone on stage should be poleaxed with horror by Salomé’s behaviour because it is horrifying for this beautiful, sexy young thing to be almost eating the head of an executed man. This is Medea, or Titus Andronicus levels of offensiveness to an ordered world. And everyone’s reaction just isn’t intense enough.

The play culminates with Slater (unnecessarily) striding up to the platform at the top of the stage and shouting into a spotlight, “Kill that woman,” which is firstly still not delivered with the intensity of a killing order, and secondly, given the persistent under-reaction throughout the play, seems a bit silly. Unfortunately, too, the execution of Salomé is rendered in a dance with the oft-used symbolic piece of long red cloth. Since fake blood has already been used twice, it’s a bit inconsistent to suddenly now use a symbolic death, though the returning reference of the veils is nice. It would have been better to see the red-cloth-as-blood for the earlier deaths as it would foreshadow the violence of the seven veils as well as keeping the design consistent. It’s nice to see Amir get to show her talent for movement again at the end, but the piece suffers from Marlow’s stiffness and the insufficiently tragic tone. The death dance seems a bit overwrought and – the telling sign of an awkward ending – the audience didn’t know when to applaud.

Salomé is a fascinating character and Argeaux’s modern, feminist interpretation of the play is intelligent and well thought out, with many clever design references reinforcing the conceit. She considers where Salomé’s lust and rage comes from and how to make a scene from Christian mythology relevant to a modern audience. Weber brings this interpretation to life, and perfectly performs the blend of dance and theatre. It is unfortunate that the supporting actors don’t match the strength of the leads, though as the run continues they may become more comfortable and fluent with the text, and there is still a lot to recommend the play. I look forward to seeing more of Weber and Argeaux’s work in future.

Salomé is at The Space in London until 19 September 2015.

The first image shows Titian’s ‘Salomé with the head of John the Baptist’, an oil painting from around 1550, showing a woman in fine robes holding a platter aloft with a head on it. She looks over her shoulder at the viewer.

The second image (and feature image) shows Caravaggio’s ‘The Beheading of John the Baptist’, an oil painting from 1608. A man is pinned to the floor as another holds presumably a knife against his throat, blood leaking from a wound. Several others look on – one is distressed, holding her face in her hands, while the others show no emotion.