After Oscar Wilde
Inspirations: Since childhood, both Wilde and Salomé were inspiring figures for Kemp, for obvious reasons… due to the abundant iconography, ranging from the biblical to the decadent, but above all to the extreme intensity of the story, throwing together a spiritual figure linked to divinity with a totally corrupt kingship and a strange sensual young princess erotically enamoured of the imprisoned prophet, but determined to ask for his head on a platter once he has refused her, so as to finally kiss his mouth.
The cult of Salomé and its numerous embellishments on the biblical version developed over the centuries, especially from the Middle Ages… in sculpture and painting, as well as in literature. Oscar Wilde’s version de-Christianised it and took it to shocking extremes, with lushly ‘decadent’ poetry charged with eroticism and new obsessional twists to the story. Visual inspirations for Kemp’s productions came from Aubrey Beardsely’s illustrations but also those of Gustave Moreau, Klimt, the Pre-Raphaelites and dozens of other versions of this morbid sex-love-and-death tale which evidently strikes deep chords in the human psyche… including Ricard Strauss’s Opera and the 1923 Silent Movie with Nazimova.
Creation: Kemp’s first experimental low-budget staging of Salomé took place in January 1973, at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, featuring costumes made from paper, and with Annie Balfour in the title role, Kemp as Narraboth and John Church as Herod. In January 1975, at the Off Off Broadway Fortune Theater in New York, a very different version was staged, now – crucially – featuring Lindsay Kemp as the childish possessed Princess. The Incredible Orlando played a grotesque Herodias, David Meyer Herod, and David Haughton Jokanaan, the mystical prophet. The dire financial straits of the company at the time meant that extreme stylisation in sets and costumes was a necessity, and a ‘poor theatre’ aesthetic was used to portray the decadent luxury of Herod’s court, reinforcing the core mood of total madness.
But another few evolutions would take place before the ‘final’ version of Salomé that toured internationally with such success between 1976 and 1984. The first big step came in Australia in 1976, opening on 6 April at the New Arts Theatre in Glebe, Sydney. Here, Haughton and Kemp had prepared a new adaptation, with reduced dialogue and increased symbolic preludes. The Australian entrepreneur invested in richer costumes and sets, new music and technical effects, and the aesthetic became decidedly more spectacular, mixing primitive rituals with touches of debauched cabaret. The final evolution came on the Company’s return to London from Australia, for its three-month season at the Roundhouse Theatre, from late February to 26 March 1977… basically with the same dramaturgy but with major reinforcements in costume and setting.
Ingredients (post 1977): the set consisted of scaffolding and gauze, and a raised platform with central steps at the back and in front, the latter serving as the prophet’s prison and lifting up to reveal the prisoner. A trapeze hung from above, providing seating for a Pierrot-like figure playing the Moon. A simple but spectacular one-wire flying system provided the winged Jokanaan with a broad circular acrobatic flight. Two large golden thrones seated the bickering Herodias and Herod, surrounded by their rival groups of slaves and hangers-on, with a lonely golden stool for Salomé.
Except for Kemp, Orlando and Haughton, over time the cast varied, especially for the main speaking role of Herod (played by, among others, Vladek Sheybal and Anton Dolin in English, and two actresses – Cipe Lincovski and Mayrata O’Wisiedo – in Italian in Spanish respectively). Seasoned with variants on cross-dressing and undressing, featuring in some cases a dwarf and a giant, mixing beauty with freakishness… the cast was completed by a real dove and a python. Kemp as the lasciviously obsessed twelve year-old virgin, and The Incredible Orlando at his most incredible in a huge baroque black dress with enormous rubber breasts and bulging white eyes, made a monstrous mother and daughter team.
The visuals included costumes, accessories and bold body make-up which all conjured a mood mixing tribalism, fetishism, exoticism, madness and sex, while John Spradbery’s conjuring with light and smoke reinforced the mood. The spoken text, in all versions involved drastic cuts in Wilde’s play, and from 1978 – when the production was toured widely in Italy and Spain – the verbal element was reduced still further… in the end occupying perhaps 20% of the show’s length.
The music featured a collage of exotic recorded music from totally contrasting cultures and periods, mixed with live sounds and percussion by Andrew Wilson, then John Riley and finally, for most of its performances, by the extraordinary percussion and voice of Joji Hirota.
Famous Scenes: the Prelude, where fire-bearing trance dancers invoke dark spirits; these lead to the screams of Herodias giving birth to the serpent that symbolises Salomé; the masked human-puppet play-scene echoing Hamlet as it depicts Herod’s murder of his brother to steal his crown and wife; a white dove… presaging the arrival of Jokanaan as a mythological bird-angel flying high above the stage with huge white feathered wings, only to be hunted and captured by Herod’s soldiers, its wings cut off, and carried off, mutilated, to prison; the ritual scattering of the angel’s feathers onstage and among the public… symbol of dismembered divinities; Salomé’s entrance, to a crackling rendition of La Paloma by Conchita Supervia, her feathered headdress slowly rising from behind the balcony, revealing a sequin-studded many-layered multicoloured costume and her slow Diva-like descent of the steps; Salomé, fascinated by the sound of Jokanaan’s voice, has him brought to her, leading to the impossible love-scene between the two… her seduction, his temptation, his maddened refusal and curse, her vow to kiss his mouth. Then the arrival of Herod’s court, a grotesque debauched procession, to a recording of a totally out of tune and time African missionary brass band with stumbling drums, followed by squabbles between Herod and Herodias, signs of Herod’s erotic infatuation with Salomé and his obsessive desire for her to dance for him, and then his promise to reward her with whatever she wants (the scene with most spoken dialogue); then, of course Salomé’s dance: firstly involving slow provocative actions with the live python, then gradually unfolding, not with seven veils, but one long unwinding layer after layer of her shining robes, with the young slaves increasingly involved in a long orgiastic crescendo; Salomé claims her prize: the prophet’s head on a platter, and Herod’s dread and useless pleading; Jokanaan’s execution à la Saint Sebastian, blood pouring from his red mouth; and then Salomé sating her desires, to the Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde, approaching and wrapping him inside her silver cape until only his head is visible, kissing him at length and drinking his blood; in the Finale, Herod from the balcony screams “kill that woman!” to his men… the slaves, carrying full-figure mirrors, slowly surround her, still clutching her prize, and crush her to death with her own reflections… then, as the mirrors open out revealing the twitching body of Salomé, the lights fade, as a small scattering of white feathers falls on her from above.