Sunday, 18 July 2010


18/7/10, Hampstead

Oscar Wilde's decadent fin de siecle hothouse flower, given a Mad Max makeover by a company called Headlong in a touring production which originated in Leicester.

I was glad we'd seen the opera the other day. The text Strauss set is remarkably faithful to Wilde, but I'm not wholly confident I'd have followed the original if I wasn't already familiar with the outline. But I thought it a powerful and more or less convincing reimagining of a piece which I imagine risks being insufferably camp. But there was a lot of shouting, and I have never seen so much spittle, not to mention a witches' brew of other fluids, including stage blood (some from Narraboth, a very great deal from Jokanaan's severed head), red wine out of jerry cans and a black viscous liquid which lay in pools about the stage and found its way onto the actors' hands and costumes ("I see BP have been," S whispered to me, with reference to the company's current little difficulty in the Gulf of Mexico).

The setting was a futuristic dystopian landscape, the cast in combats, touting modern weapons, the floor made of shredded tyres. It made a nonsense of some of the lines, but it made some sort of sense of a world in which strange superstitions went hand in hand with violence and unbridled self-indulgence and (frankly) outright madness.

It's Herod's play. Played by Con O'Neill with white face, red lips and manic conviction, he is a more grotesquely compelling figure than Salome (Zawe Ashton), a petulant and precocious teenager who suddenly grasps the destructive power of her sexuality, dressed in this production in black halter-neck bra and zip-down-the-front combats. For the dance she changed into an extraordinary pink wig, pink bra and knickers and see-through stretchy dress and a ghastly bright pink wig, and came on with a huge boom box for the music (she pulled the aerial up suggestively with her teeth), before getting down to knickers alone.

Wilde's dialogue works surprisingly well, despite the thees and thous, to anyone accustomed to Shakespeare, and they cast excavated it for its meaning assiduously. And like watching updated Shakespeare, you quickly learnt to turn a deaf ear to the inconsistencies: Jokanaan praised for the whiteness of his skin despite being an almost-naked black man with glistening skin; all the talk of Rome and Caesar.

The stage was bare, with nothing but banks of lights to either side and at the back, and a sort of climbing frame against part of the back wall. Jokanaan (physically impressive, booming voice but had a lisp) emerged from a circular manhole cover centre stage.

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