Salomé encompasses the best and worst of the Cambridge, and indeed student, theatre scene. You would be hard pressed to find anywhere else offering an adaptation of Wilde's play inspired by Noh theatre and combining music, contemporary dance, and song. Director Thomas Stell must be commended for the aesthetic integrity of the play, which he translated from the French, despite the fact it doesn’t always succeed.
The play itself is amenable to such an aesthetically riveting interpretation, as it focuses less on the psychology behind the Biblical tale of the beheading of John the Baptist, but rather on the stylized actions and words of the protagonist. Aubrey Beardsley’s original illustrations for the play are reminiscent of Stell’s adaptation in their stylized focus on the flowing tresses and blossoms surrounding the characters, who are suspended in an indeterminate, though ethereal, landscape. Thus, we hear repeated invocations of moons, doves, ivory, flowers and fruits during characters’ monologues, that do more to create an atmosphere than further the plot. This hazy repetitiveness is perfectly complemented by Gwen Davis’ elaborately stylized costumes and make-up, whose non-naturalistic pops of blue lipstick and orange eyeshadow further the sense of watching a decadent dreamscape.
However, this aspect of the show is both its most impressive most detrimental feature. The commitment to the Noh elements of the play meant often a lot of performances were subdued, and when this was combined with some of the more ludicrous lyricism (things such as “blue like blue flowers” and “silver like silver apples”) ended up unintentionally eliciting a few laughs. Gwen Davis must be commended for her performance as Salomé, which conveyed something of the character’s covetousness and carnal allure through her poise and elegantly choreographed dance. The routine perfectly captured Salomé’s artfully constructed seductiveness. The real star, however, was Eduardo Strike as Herod. Strike’s bombastic performance came the closest to explicating psychologically plausible motivations and desires within the play’s stylized framework. For a play that is driven by desire – Salomé’s desire for John the Baptist, Herod’s desire for Salomé – to reach its horrifying conclusion, with all its corollaries of moral bankruptcy, would have required a little less focus on the aesthetics and a little more focus on the characters themselves.
Ultimately, Salomé is a play that is, in the words of its eponymous protagonist, a little too much “in love with [its] flesh”, which is certainly exquisitely designed and managed. It works best when considered less as a play and more as an artistic experience. For its exciting reminder of the possibilities of the theatre alone, it is well worth watching.