In Oscar Wilde’s timeless twist on the biblical story of John the Baptist’s execution, princess Salome lives luxuriously in a bustling Middle Eastern court with her mother and stepfather, the perpetually inebriated tetrarch Herod Antipas. Salome, widely worshipped for her pale beauty, develops an intrigue in Jokanaan, one of the prophets the tetrarch holds in his dungeons. Coupled with her stepfather’s unrequited lust for her, and the confusion of superstition and belief, the tragedy culminates in death and despair.
Many shows work well as one-man renderings – Wilde’s Salome, sadly, does not.
In this one man rendition, Dan Harlan manages to convey the identity of each of the play’s numerous characters through a single object associated with their persona. With brilliant minimalism, each object speaks volumes to the audience about who a certain character is, what they desire, and what their weakness is. Precious Salome glides around draped with a dainty golden shawl. Flamboyant, bumbling Herod is glued to his flask of wine. Guileful, mysterious Herodias whispers from behind an elaborate mask. Interactions between the characters often take the beautiful form of interactions between the objects themselves, with our sole actor as a skilful storyteller shifting between the voices attached to each object. Harlan thus captures the true essence of each of these characters. However, their essence seems to be the only thing he captures.
The actor is beset with a very difficult task; his breathless darting between each character, between male and female, master and servant, fool and wiseman, naturally impedes his ability to portray each character with the subtlety and complexity Wilde accorded each of them with his words. We are left with mere caricatures, as the famous tragedy assumes an unwelcome farcical tone. Moments of traditionally devastating anguish become laughable. Salome’s enigmatic eroticism is degraded to a silly high-pitched voice. Wilde’s exploration of the nature of religious belief and prophecy is rolled to the wayside. Within this bubbly and humorous atmosphere, the Victorian play’s racist idealisation of whiteness, along with its anti-semitism, is rendered all the more jarring and ridiculous.
Harlan, an energetic and expressive performer, has a style that is compelling. Salome’s iconic dance is staged in particularly irresistible fashion and with an arresting solemnity, magnifying its portentous seductive grace. However, this style is too often prioritised over substance. Many shows work well as one-man renderings – Wilde’s Salome, sadly, does not.