Owen Horsley is directing a contemporary take on Oscar Wilde’s lyrical production of Salomé at the RSC. The poetic one-act drama is being recreated with sexual ambiguity at the core.
Marking 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality, Owen wanted to direct this play that was written by Oscar Wilde, in a time where people were imprisoned for being homosexual, with Wide himself being sent to prison. Salomé is already a play that induces intrigue after it being banned because the religious characters could not be portrayed on stage, and Owen’s production heightens that intrigue even more with his creative take on it as he has cast a man in the leading role of Salomé. He said: “Everything in this play is about this unfulfilled desire and not being able to name it, and the world of codes and symbols in which homosexuality has been affiliated with.”
Without changing any of the script, Owen has managed to create a completely fresh and powerful take on the play by choosing to make it entirely gender fluid. “I want to present something that is bold, strong, and direct in a way that the audience will leave having gone through a sensual, visceral and physical experience,” Owen said. “Current theatre is wonderfully intelligent and people today enjoy using their brains, but I really want to encourage the audience to come into it going ‘this is about my feeling and not about my logic’ because if you think about this play too much, it destroys itself.”
Owen’s initial attraction to the play came from both the fact that the RSC have never done an Oscar Wilde play before, and because he is completely in awe of Wilde himself. “I am kind of in love with the man really,” Owen laughed. “He is this wonderful, gregarious, vulnerable, witty and self-destructive man.” The play Salomé was the moment Oscar Wilde began to experiment with a different form. “We know Wilde for his witty social manners such as The Importance Of Being Earnest, but this play comes out of nowhere,” Owen said. “He is beginning to experiment with a different language that seems to lack the mask of wit and is much more guttural. When you do the research, and look at his relationship with Bosie and all the turbulent relationships he had, the play then all just makes so much more sense as his own relationship with desire was so complex for him.
Salomé is the story of a virgin princess who falls in love with Iokanaan despite him not loving her at all, which causes Salomé to lose her mind because of her lust and desire. Owen explained: “The main adaptation and the main refocus is by casting Matthew at the centre of it as Salomé. Dropping Matthew into the centre of it makes the waves and the ripples of the piece take care of themselves. We aren’t trying to drill home a political message about what we think about sexuality, we are putting a boy in the centre of it in order to allow the audience to hear it and see it in different ways.”
“I feel like theatre has the responsibility to tell diverse stories, and I think we should always make sure we are making the priority of diverse stories as opposed to diverse casting because that is going to push directors in the right direction.”
Without altering any of the gender references, by putting a man in the central role which is referred to as a woman, is embracing the idea of the performance element of it as it enables the audience to see the character in a different light and it sparks questions about gender. Owen said: “Some things bring out the character’s feminine qualities, and others more masculine, so it is kind of fluid throughout really.”
After reading the play, Owen read a statement from Oscar Wilde which said the play was ‘like a piece of music’ which led him to ask Perfume Genius to get involved, an influential LGBT musician. “I’m a big fan of Perfume Genius in terms of the tone, and aesthetic so that was a huge influence for me in this production,” he said, emphasising his adoration for working with the RSC. “It affords us these fantastic opportunities; it is incredible to have that support available.”
“Salomé is very theatrical, it is a love letter to theatre.”
“The play is very aesthetic,” Owen said. “That is what Oscar Wilde is very concerned about in this play, the images, symbols and beauty.” Owen talked about the inspiration he got from visiting Tate Britain’s queer art exhibition. “It was amazing,” he said, “I am a big fan of artists like Francis Bacon, so there are influences of his slightly grotesque art in this production.” Owen is taking ideas from both the words in the play and the relevant culture surrounding him today. “One thing we talked about a lot in rehearsals was being in opposition with this beautiful aesthetic, underneath there is this kind of grotesque filth, which I think is always present when you’re looking at something beautiful,” he added.
Ultimately with the performance, Owen is trying to create something that is purposefully ambiguous and complicated, so it lacks a direct response from the audience.”Theatre is about continuing conversations,” he said. “I’m not interested in making a point, I just want to tell a story and get something from the audience in that way.” Owen explained how he wants his audience to be diverse, and he would love families to come and see the production in order to provoke that conversation about gender.
“I feel like in society people can talk about trans and gender fluidity, but as long as they don’t cross a line that threatens them,” Owen explained. “I would argue that even liberal-minded people still want a sense of labelling and I think this play explores that very well. Salomé desires Iokanaan and it’s that desire and want that scares us, as it comes from a sexuality that is not normal to society, and of course the casting makes that even richer.”