The Trial of Salome ~ theatre notes

Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Trial of Salome

The Trial of Salome, adapted and directed by Bob Pavlich. Designed by Romanie Harper, lighting by Gwendolyna Holmberg-Gilchrist. With T'mara Buckmaster, Emma Goldsworthy, Adrian Mulraney, David Adamson, Alex Pinder and Josh Ryan. La Mama @ the Carlton Courthouse, until August 5.

Oscar Wilde's enduring popularity is due, in part, to the fact that he is a figure of unsettling modernity: the fin de si├Ęcle decor of his writings, which otherwise might date him as badly as Swinburne, is underlaid by a tough, unsparing intelligence. This is as true of his less well-known writing as it is of the plays which established him as the greatest comic playwright since his fellow Irishman, Sheridan.

The fairy tales in the collection The House of Pomegranates ("intended," said Wilde, "neither for the British child nor the British public") rank high in his achievement: they are not only enchanting, beautifully wrought stories, but among his most serious meditations on (for example) the relationship between art and feeling, or the place of love in religion, or the ethics of public authority. And they also demonstrate his capacity - more evident in his prose, in fact, than in his poetry - for sustaining extremes of poetic language.

Of Wilde's plays, the closest in both sensibility and diction to his fairy tales is Salome. Perhaps the strangest of Wilde's plays, this one-acter retells the Biblical story of Salome, step-daughter of the tetrarch Herod Antipas, who requests the head of Jokaanan (John the Baptist) on a silver platter as her reward for dancing the Dance of the Seven Veils.

Originally written in French, its English premiere was cancelled when the Lord Chamberlain refused it a license, deeming it illegal to represent Biblical characters on stage. This ban held until 1931, but it did not stop private performances of the play, including one that sparked a 1918 trial for criminal libel which bore startling similarities to the trial that brought about Wilde's own downfall.

The suit was brought against Noel Pemberton Billing, the properietor of a right wing journal called The Vigilante, by the actress Maud Allen, who, in an attack on a production of Salome in which she performed the title role, was accused of being a member of the "Cult of the Clitoris" - a coded accusation of homosexuality.

For The Trial of Salome, director Bob Pavlich has cut together original transcripts from the trial with adapted excerpts from Wilde's play. Aside from Salome (T'mara Buckmaster), all the cast plays double roles - Herod (Adrian Mulraney) is also the Judge, Emma Goldsworthy is Herodias and Maud Allen, and so on.

It's an intriguing concept which, among other things, demonstrates with eye-popping clarity the close relationship between misogyny and homophobia. In Billing's eyes, a woman's uncontrolled sexuality is as much a threat to the clean-living heterosexual male as is the disease of homosexuality. The clitoris, we learn, is a mysterious organ known only inside medical journals and to perverts; in the grip of its influence, a woman might "be driven to an elephant".

If it hadn't actually happened, it would be hilarious. Sadly, as religious fundamentalism ensures that homophobia and misogyny creep into the core of public life, especially in the US, this is rather more than a period piece. As in Sylvere Lotringer's blackly funny Overexposed: Treating Sexual Perversion in America, a series of interviews with psychologists "treating" sexual criminals, it becomes increasingly clear that the real perversities exist in the fantasies projected by those who claim to be preserving the moral health of the nation.

Pavlich has created a fine piece of dramaturgy, theatrically cutting between the two realities in ways that are neither unsubtle nor predictable. The excerpts from Salome - a drama that is, in fact, about a woman savagely protecting her chasteness from the lust projected onto her by nearly every man she encounters - become an ironic counter-argument.

Perhaps what was most troubling to the censors was the beauty of Wilde's language (described during the trial as a certain sign of the sodomite). This beauty is felt as a moral affront; and in fact, the authorities were quite correct to feel this. In Wilde's moral universe, sensuous beauty was a radical imperative, a manifestation of love - even divine love - that struck profoundly at the heart of political and moral authority. For example, in The Fisherman and his Soul, the Priest, having cursed the lovers whose profane corpses have been cast on the beach, prepares to preach a sermon of fire and brimstone:

"He began to speak to the people, desiring to speak to them of the wrath of God. But the beauty of the white flowers troubled him, and their odour was sweet in his nostrils, and there came another word into his lips, and he spake not of the wrath of God, but of the God whose name is Love. And why he so spake, he knew not..."

The passions induced by Salome's beauty are much darker. For Salome, what matters is her chasteness, her moon-like integrity, which are constantly assailed by the lusts she unwittingly inspires in men, including in her stepfather Herod. Her revenge is deadly, and most deadly against the one man who inspires in her an answering desire, only to spurn her, Jokanaan.

Salome knowingly uses the lust she inspires to gain her own ends, finally acceding to Herod's impassioned requests that she dance for him, and then refusing all the riches he can offer her in favour of Jokanaan's head. "There are not dead men enough!" she says, as she orders soldiers to bring it to her.

When Herod witnesses the reality of Salome's desire, he is horrified, calling her "monstrous", and orders her death. But it's clear that her desire has been made monstrous by its constant erasure. She is only ever the object of desire, her own wants ignored by the men who, blinded by their lust, fail to perceive her at all. In this way they are no different from Jokanaan, who will not even look at her.

Stephen Berkoff brought his National Theatre production of Salome here several years ago. Although widely disparaged by Melbourne critics, it left me open-mouthed: aside from featuring one of the most sheerly beautiful designs I have ever seen, the company's performances of Wilde's Solomonic language was revelatory, showing me how powerful poetic language can be on stage, if uttered with complete physical and emotional conviction.

Unlike Berkoff's production, this co-op show hasn't the resources to meet the ambitions of this most interesting script. Aside from Mulraney and Goldsworthy, both fine, experienced actors, the cast has real trouble coming to grips with the extremes of Wilde's lyrical theatricality. For the most part (though this is also a function of the direction) they seem static in space, physically ungrounded, uncertain how to pitch either the poetry or the comedy.

And puzzlingly, given the intelligence of Pavlich's script, his direction seems to be misconceived, most grievously in Buckmaster's portrayal of Salome as a petulant, seductive teenager. There is no sense of the wounded pride which erupts so murderously in the play's climactic scene: the performance is more Paris Hilton denied a new pair of shoes than barbarian princess struck by the curse of Cupid's arrow. The decision to spread the part of Jokanaan between all the male cast members on the one hand emphasises their common blindness but, on the other, robs Jokanaan of his singularity and, perhaps most crucially, of his physical presence.

Despite my reservations, The Trial of Salome is worth seeing for the sheer interest of the script, which deserves a better-resourced production, and for its admirable ambition.


Chris Boyd said...

From memory, Alison, Steven Berkoff's Salome wasn't commissioned by the NT, it was bought in to fill a gap in the National's schedule. Despite Salome's international success, Berkoff wasn't invited back... something he was mightily grumpy about when he was in Melbourne again, a few years later.

I don't actually remember the critical reception to the show here. (I was too blown away by the show to care much!) Was it really so widely disparaged?

I can still see Alan Perrin (?) running himself through with a blade, in exquisite slow-motion.

Alison Croggon said...

I think it came under the NT aegis, but it was so long ago I can't be sure... I remember the Critics' Huddle from that show quite clearly, because I was very shocked - everyone agreed that basically it was a wank. Not that they would have said so in so many words. Any access to the Fairfax files, Chris? It would be interesting to know if my memory is playing me false...

Chris Boyd said...

15 years with the Fin Review (happy birthday to me) and I still don't have access to the Fairfax files. But I reckon I might have a full set of ANZTRs from that era. 1992 wasn't it? (I think it was an Adelaide Festival year cos the Suzuki "McBeth" was on at the same time, no?)

I'll rummage around and get back.