In the RSC’s Salomé programme, the production’s director is asked why he cast a man in the title role. “I wanted to focus on the ambiguity of gender,” Owen Horsley answers. “[The character of] Salomé will – through costume and actions – continually juxtapose male and female conceptions, remaining fluid throughout.” But representations of gender fluidity are not specifically what make this Salomé so strong. That accolade belongs to the more traditional quality of great acting.
Matthew Tennyson is superb as Salomé, exhibiting a multi-layered character you struggle to take your eyes off. He shows the princess’ vulnerable side when offered wine, fruit and a seat by King Herod, delivering lines such as “I’m not thirsty, Tetrarch” in a breathy, wobbly tone. Then, having seen the opportunity for the prophet Iokanaan’s head on a plate, Tennyson parades the stage with a power at odds with the somewhat feeble figure previously portrayed. The monologue he delivers to the living Iokanaan, and the one he addresses to the prophet’s head post-decapitation, are both captivating emotional outpourings, beautifully timed with no detectable errors.
Tennyson is joined onstage by Suzanne Burden, who supplies a wonderfully monstrous Herodias, and Matthew Pidgeon – outstanding in the role of Herod. Pidgeon takes his character from a brash and drunk banquet host through to a monarch backed into a corner by his own lust and promise. Herod reaches his wits’ end, and Pidgeon gets to that point with real skill; he doesn’t rush to the climax of the king’s breakdown, but squeezes all the drama out of each of its stages – it’s the best way to communicate a demise.
Ilan Evans (Naaman), who sings brilliantly in this production, is a tad drowned out by the music when performing Perfume Genius’ ‘Queen’; and, following a moment of full frontal nudity, Matthew Tennyson takes slightly too long to get his pants back on. But these are minute elements in this brutal and beautiful depiction of desire. There’s an honest attempt to educate people on gender, but it's the energised and excellent acting that makes this production well worth watching.
Salomé is at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 6 September.
Image: Matthew Tennyson as Salomé | Photo by Isaac James © RSC
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