Salome – Camden Studio Theatre – Spring 1994 – a letter

A letter I sent in 1994. This was the third letter of appreciation I’d sent to performers. (For the first letter, see the next post. The second letter was to two Indian Kathak dancers I’d seen in Bournemouth in 1991: from their performances I thought that Kathak dance was one of the most moving and musical art forms I had ever seen.)

I want to write more about Colette Koo’s acting later (her interpretation of Salome was one of the best performances I have ever seen in anything, fringe or mainstream), but I wish this letter to stand as my immediate reaction to seeing the production. More accurately, my almost immediate reaction: I saw the play on Saturday 26 March, and (more than somewhat hesitantly) wrote and sent the letter on the following Tuesday.

***** To: Innervision Theatre Company, Tuesday 29 March 1994

Since your production of Salome has attracted some odd comments by reviewers, I’d like to offer a corrective view.  There are several things I could say (eg I’d forgotten that one reason I like this play is just hearing the sound of the language), but I want to make two comments in particular.

The first concerns Salome’s first speeches to Jokanaan, where she’s alternating between praise of his (I’ll use “his”) body/hair/mouth and petulant dislike of them.  Colette Koo conveyed these switches well, until it came to Salome’s declaration that “I love not thy hair …. It is thy mouth I desire“.  I was quite surprised when she continued in “petulant” mode for the praise of Jokanaan’s mouth, as this seemed contrary to the text.  But: as she continued the speech her petulance gradually modulated into passion and desire, and I was won over – in fact, I now think that this is probably more psychologically convincing than the way I had previously assumed it had to be done; an initial “ironic”/petulant praise of Jokanaan’s mouth gradually changing to genuine praise/desire seems to convey Salome’s fascination better, and to point up her switch from just “playing” with Jokanaan to something deeper.

I also want to take issue with the “What’s On” reviewer’s comment that the production “captures something of the horror story but nothing of the tragedy“.  When I got home from seeing the play I looked up Salome’s two last speeches “Ah! thou wouldst not suffer me …. Love only should one consider” and “Ah! I have kissed thy mouth …. I have kissed thy mouth, Jokanaan“.  And I was surprised, because in the text all I can see – explicitly – is Salome’s regret.  But as performed by Colette Koo what came over to me was a moving mixture of regret and Salome’s realisation that she has been driven to kill what she desired, and has thus lost what she wanted.  If that isn’t an example of tragedy, I don’t know what is.  In fact, watching Colette Koo perform this part of the play there came into my mind the line from Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol “Yet each man [or woman?] kills the thing he loves“.  Well, I hope that life doesn’t have to be like that, but it’s what happens in this play.

Finally: in 1992(?) I saw the British Chinese Theatre Company’s production of “The Changeling“.  This was, I think, the only time I’ve experienced anything approaching catharsis (in the true meaning of the word) in the theatre, and it made me realise what a waste of talent there is if we, as theatre-goers, can’t accept “ethnic” (I don’t like the word, but can’t think of another) actors, in western classical plays.  I wish I knew what the solution to this problem is: maybe for audiences (and directors!) to use their imaginations, and to realise that the theatre isn’t “real” anyway, so why quibble about casting.  There’s some hope I think: I’ve seen some productions where “race” (another word I don’t like) simply hasn’t been an issue.  I remember a production of Alan Ayckbourn’s “How the Other Half Loves” which cast one of the three couples as a “white” husband and a “black” wife; my reaction: first – that’s unusual, then – why not, and I and the rest of the audience went on to enjoy the play.

Notes:

  • “some odd comments by reviewers”: the “What’s On in London” review had a partial understanding of what this production and performances achieved, but the Times was very dismissive, and the “Time Out London” review is succinctly summarised as “stay home and play cards instead”. But it was one of the best things I have ever seen in a theatre.
  • For those who don’t know Oscar Wilde’s play, a short description of the scene referred to in the first comment of my letter. (Those who do know it can skip this note: a year or so after this letter I was extolling this production to a Dutch woman who was very interested in East Asian arts, and to set up the impact on me of the scene between Salome and Jokanaan I was describing it in terms very similar to the ones in this note when she politely but firmly interrupted me saying “I know the scene, I’ve directed the play”.) Salome is fascinated by hearing the voice of Jokanaan (John the Baptist), and demands that he be brought out of a dungeon to meet her. Using language reminiscent of the Song of Solomon, she says she is in love with the whiteness of Jokanaan’s body: “Let me touch thy body”. Then, petulantly, she changes, saying his body is hideous to her; changing back to praising, it is his hair she is fascinated by and in love with: “Let me touch thy hair”. Again, she changes petulantly, saying that his hair is horrible to her; changing back to praising, it is his red mouth that she loves: “Let me kiss thy mouth”.
  • This was the first time I had seen Colette Koo act, and was the only occasion in the theatre when I have had three quite different opinions of an actor’s competence within twenty seconds. Based on the first part of the play up to just before Salome praising Jokanaan’s mouth I thought Colette Koo was a good actor. When she continued in “petulant” mode to praise Jokanaan’s mouth my initial reaction was that she had temporarily forgotten that she needed to switch back to “praising” mode: I still thought she was a good actor, but this was an unfortunate lapse which shouldn’t have happened. (But was forgiveable.) Then as she gradually modulated her tone from petulance to passion and desire (this musical metaphor is exact) quite different from Salome’s fascination with Jokanaan’s body and hair I realised what she was doing and that I was seeing very very good acting.

    I don’t know what the rest of the audience thought: performing this scene this way takes a large risk that some (me, for example) will at least initially misinterpret what’s happening. But to be as moving as Colette Koo was at the end of the play, Salome’s feeling’s for Jokanaan have to be established as something more than mere lust, and Colette Koo’s performance in this scene with Jokanaan had long term implications for setting up the full tragedy at the end of this production of Salome, something I didn’t realise fully until about two years later. Which is strange because it’s reasonably obvious from the two comments in my letter. (My unconscious knowing more than my conscious?!)

  • Until this production I thought that much as I was fascinated by Wilde’s Salome, the opera by Strauss was greater. This production made me realise that the play – at any rate as performed here, especially by Colette Koo, was greater and more emotionally intense than the opera. For me the great operas of the 20th century are (in rough chronological order) Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, Strauss’s Salome, Bartok and Belasz’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, Janacek’s Jenufa and Sharp Ears the Vixen, and Berg’s Lulu (with Marisol Montalvo as Lulu), which should indicate the emotional impact this fringe theatre Salome had on me. (Some years later I saw a production of Strauss’s opera at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden which was a vastly inferior artistic experience to this fringe production of the play, and which had two elementary errors of staging which shouldn’t occur anywhere, and certainly not at an international opera house.)
  • This was the second time I saw part of a play performed very well in a quite different way to how I had previously thought it could/should be done. My next post deals with the first. The third was in 1995 or 1996 seeing a film of a 1960s BBC television production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It“. I thought the acting was mostly “of its time”, which I meant unkindly, but on later reflection I decided that whilst the comment was true, the production was intended for an audience of its time, and I withdrew the unkind intent behind the phrase.

    But what was absolutely acting not of its time, but for all time was Max Adrian’s performance of Jacques’s “Seven Ages of Man” speech. I’d always seen this performed as a sort of melancholy canter through the stages of life to amuse and entertain the Duke and his followers in the Forest of Arden (and us the audience), and hadn’t imagined it could be done in a radically different way.

    In this production the camera cut from a long shot of the Duke (who has a short speech which – sort of – introduces and sets up Jacques’s speech) and his followers to a profile head shot of Jacques who then abruptly turns so that he is looking directly into the camera (and so at us, the audience) and says with real anger: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players“. This wasn’t an amusing turn for a Duke’s court enjoying themselves in an idyllic countryside, it was a realist – an angry realist – saying you fools (the Duke and his followers, and us, the audience), you don’t understand, this is the (cruel?) reality. Later in the speech Max Adrian modulated his tone to being more conciliatory (subtext? now I’ve shocked you into listening properly, I can be gentler), but that shocking opening cast a shadow over the rest of the speech which made it mean much more than in a conventional rendering.

    As with Colette Koo’s performance of Salome’s speech to Jokanaan, as soon as I realised what Max Adrian was doing I thought that this was a more psychologically convincing way of playing the lines than the way I was used to.

  • Continuing the theme of things being performed in a quite different way to how I had hitherto assumed they had to be performed, in October 2004 the Hungarian National Opera & Ballet performed a double bill of Bartok and Belasz’s opera “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” and Bartok’s “pantomime” (actually a modern ballet) “The Miraculous Mandarin“.

    With one significant exception (Michael Tanner in The Spectator) the reviews I saw of the opera production were rather negative. What’s more, I tended to agree with the negative reviews: the acting seemed somewhat old-fashioned, even stilted.

    So it may be more than somewhat surprising if I say that this was unquestionably the best performance of this opera I have seen.

    A brief summary of the plot of the opera for those who don’t know it: [To be completed shortly: in brief, the psychological change in Judit’s feelings for Bluebeard occurred much earlier in the action than is usual in performances of this opera – in fact at the opening of the fifth door, which in most stagings is perhaps when Judit’s feelings for Bluebeard are at their strongest. But in this performance Judit’s reaction is almost one of aversion to Bluebeard almost boasting (or, charitably, trying to find something that will keep their relationship on track – and, thinking about it, Bluebeard does try to stop Judit opening any of the doors, so his motives at the fifth door are much more complex than mere boasting): in short, in this production Judit became more mature earlier than in other productions. (A Dolls House – Nora becomes more mature before Torvald.) Before seeing this production it hadn’t occurred to me that Judit’s change in feelings could start at the opening of the fifth door. That pyschological revelation in this production far outweighed the negative aspects referred too.]

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About Colin Bartlett

I'm interested in arts, mathematics, science. Suliram is a partial conflation of the names of three good actors: Ira Aldridge, Anna May Wong, and another. My intention is to use a personal experience of arts to make some points, but without being too "me me me" about it. And to follow Strunk's Elements of Style. Except that I won't always "be definite": I prefer Niels Bohr's precept that you shouldn't write clearer than you think.
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