The story of Salome, like many tales from the Bible, has endured in part because of its frisson of beauty and brutality. Christian iconography has presented her as the epitome of the femme fatale – a cool, somewhat foolish ingénue whose sensual flippancy led to the beheading of John the Baptist, and whose sexual potency has endured in the legendary image of the Dance of the Seven Veils.
In modern times, this contentious figure of femininity has found new allegorical meaning amongst the gay community, since the dramas that surrounded Oscar Wilde’s 1891 adaption, entitled simply Salome. It is a lineage that is not lost on Stephen Nicolazzo, director of a new adaption of the work that will be staged by Little Ones Theatre at the Malthouse’s Tower Theatre from the 30th of August.
“This piece has such a place in queer history,” says Nicolazzo, “in terms of Wilde writing it during the Victorian period, where he was being persecuted for his homosexuality.” Indeed, Wilde was imprisoned for sodomy during the first English production of his play in 1892, turned in by the person credited with its translation from Wilde’s original French, Lord Alfred Douglas.
“This story as a kind of allegory for homosexual persecution has really resonated,” continues Nicolazzo, adding that his researches turned up the fact that gay soldiers during the Great War used to call each other Salome as code for their sexual orientation.
Nicolazzo also cites the extraordinary influence that Wilde’s Salome has had on the drag world, noting that as early as the 1920’s and the inception of the Harlem Drag Ball in New York, Salome was a favoured persona of African American drag-queens of the time. ‘It’s been an inspiration point for a lot of artists,’ he says.
So what is Nicolazzo aiming to bring to this most mercurial of post-gender icons? For one, he has cast his eye back to the creative explosion of androgynous pop that typified the 1980’s, bringing the subversive sexual fluidity of the New Romantics to the fore once more.
“Because we’re working in a gender-bent environment,” he says, “where males are playing females and so forth, I wanted to capture the hedonistic period that Wilde wrote the play in … so I thought the nearest contemporary counterpart to that was the 80’s. Plus,” he adds “I love working with music. Adam Ant and Boy George… these amazing men and women, like Madonna, that brought gender bending into the mainstream in the 80s and made it this really accessible and sexy thing.”
Nicolazzo clearly adores working with his cast, including Paul Blenheim, who is playing the eponymous Salome. ‘He’s got this ability to weirdly be understated and quite emotive in the realm of camp. He brings humanity to camp in a way that I find really fascinating,” says Nicolazzo. Salome will be wearing a hand-made matador costume (courtesy of Tessa Leigh Pitt and Eugyeene Teh) that promises to be spectacular. ‘You can really see why all the characters in the play are obsessed with her because she’s sparkly and regal. It’s really amazing.”
Nicolazzo is clearly excited. “It’s a big explosion. High camp, gloss, and a rocking good show, a sensory overload in terms of visuals, performance, music, dance.” It’s been a long love-affair for him, after all, as he tells me. “I fell in love with the play years ago – it’s been a really long relationship – a friend of mine in Paris read it to me in the French, so I’ve got an idea of the music of it and that’s been the key to our dramaturgical process.”
Audiences, Nicolazzo hopes, will have the opportunity to indulge in a very personal vision of Wilde’s text. “The thing that I hope they’ll get from it is an appreciation for a piece that was really close to Wilde’s heart, in a way that hasn’t been seen before.” The stage, it seems, is set for a new Dance of the Seven Veils…
Little Ones Theatre and Malthouse Theatre present
SALOMÉ By Oscar Wilde
August 30-September 14, at the Tower Theatre