Twin Peaks, Lady Gaga, the Wizard of Oz and Santa Claus: UK critic Megan Vaughan reviews Adena Jacobs and Marg Horwell’s trashy interpretation of Salome at the English National Opera in London
It is an objective truth that all the best stories are about sex, death, and rebellious women, so Salome, however it is performed, is always going to be a belter. Wilde’s combination of raw female desire and epic biblical drama with a brutal gorefest ending can often feel like part of the same lineage of art and entertainment as much of modern Hollywood.
I’m thinking of classic teenage horrors, and the works of Quentin Tarantino especially. In these narratives, women are often hugely powerful, but they are also dangerous: forces to be overcome and bodies to be dominated. The same goes, of course, for Salome, whose brief triumph over Herod is quickly punished by death.
While it is probably a bit of a no-brainer for today’s artists to reposition Salome’s story in contemporary feminist politics, what’s most interesting about Adena Jacobs’ production of Strauss’s Salome at the English National Opera is how its visual imagery – drawn from pop culture, cabaret camp, and niche porn – reframes the men as weak, emasculated has-beens.
When we first see the great prophet Jokanaan, he lies lifelessly wrapped in plastic, everything but his hot pink stiletto heels obscured. It’s reminiscent of both the Wicked Witch of the East, crushed by Dorothy’s falling house, and the discovery of Laura Palmer’s body at the beginning of Twin Peaks. Once he’s dragged himself to his feet, we hear Salome sing of his beautiful black hair, but we can see that it’s actually half grey.
A camera in front of his face projects a huge close-up of his singing mouth onto the wall at the back of the stage and, let’s be honest, even the most beautiful mouths in the world are still kinda gross; we see shiny spittle and irregular incisors blown up to the size of a small house. Even being touched by the hand of god doesn’t grant you a flattering filter.
Later, no doubt referencing Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, an even larger image of him is revealed. This time he’s a beautiful, androgynous twink, eyes blindfolded but mouth super-sensual. This huge portrait is glossy, youthful, and perennially up for it, even as the real meat and bones of Jokanaan remains haggard and corrupted.
Herod is pathetic in a different way. He’s dressed like Santa Claus in a big red jacket with white trim, pulling cartoonish Christmas presents out of a big red sack. It’s neither jolly nor festive; it’s humiliating. He wants to fuck Salome, but ends up looking like a laughable, impotent old man, a character from a twisted fairy story.
Against these images of masculine degradation, Salome’s power manifests as the freedom to do the absolute bare minimum. Her Dance of the Seven Veils is a highlight of the show, mainly because she does fuck all for most of it. Handling a very phallic baseball bat like Harley Quinn from Suicide Squad, she looks alternately menacing and suggestive, discarding all the coy flirtation (and unpleasant western Orientalism) of more traditional choreography and letting a troupe of ponytailed backing dancers do her heavy lifting for her.
In sequinned headpieces and flesh-toned body stockings, their look was very The Fame-era Lady Gaga. The routine included moves from exercise videos, ballet warm-ups and ponyplay fetish clubs, all performed with a gloriously nonchalant, robotic, porny boredom. I loved their whole phoning-it-in attitude. It reminded me of something I heard once, I think via a friend: Men don’t want to have sex with women; they just want to masturbate with their bodies. Salome knows this, so why should she bother breaking a sweat to get what she wants when poor Santa Herod creams his boxers at a bit of aerobics. (Bravo, choreographer Melanie Lane.)
I can’t quite leave this review as a rave though, much as I’d like to. While Jacobs and Horwell have crafted something cohesive and visually striking, this is still opera. They can only do so much to it. The demands of Strauss’s music make it near-impossible for Salome’s casting to reflect the queer aesthetics and genderfuckery its creative team evidently hoped it would, and as a result, the addition of costume flourishes from cross-dressing or fetish scenes can feel a bit superficial. It’s as if the production wants to break the opera, but the opera won’t (can’t?) be broken, artistically or structurally: even after a radical production created by a team of incredibly talented and driven women, the person who gets the final and most significant ovation of the curtain call is the conductor. An old grey dude.
Megan Vaughan is a writer, zinemaker and researcher based in Essex.She’s currently a PhD student at Royal Holloway University, researching “outsider” theatre criticism. Her theatre blog, Synonyms for Churlish, was most active from 2011 – 2016, but still continues sporadically here. Her book examining the practices of the theatre blogosphere, Theatre Blogging: the Emergence of a Critical Culture, will be published by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama in 2019.
Salome, by Richard Strauss, based on a play by Oscar Wilde, libretto translation by Tom Hammond. Directed by Adena Jacobs, designed by Marg Horwell, lighting design by Lucy Carter, choreography by Melanie Lane. ENO orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins. Performed by Allison Cook, David Soar, Michael Colvin, Susan Bickley, Stuart Jackson. English National Opera at London Coliseum. Until October 23. Bookings