Salomé at the Swan

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By Drs Sarah-Jane Fenton, Research Fellow, Mental Health & Wellbeing UnitWarwick Medical School and Anjna Chouhan, Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.


Matthew Tennyson as Salomé. Copyright the RSC.


A Shakespearian

Watching Owen Horsley’s Salomé at the Swan was a remarkable experience for two reasons. First, the company was fizzing with a carnal, raw kind of energy that made my stomach churn and my heart skip. But second, and possibly more interestingly, because I saw it with my good friend Sarah-Jane, a mental health researcher at the University of Warwick. I was struck by the performers’ relishing of the language: a self-consciously indulgent stylised rhetoric worthy of the title ‘Decadent’.  The characters were linked by this language and artistry, without any real connection to one another – aside from the Page’s bittersweet fantastical longing for his captain. As characters climb and descend into the only two directions open to them – up and down – so the audience is made to jump between awe and disgust for these deluded, indulgent, deeply dissatisfied people.

When I started talking about the multiple references to the moon with Sarah-Jane, she observed how poignant the production seemed to be on the subject of mental health, especially the juxtaposition of 19th and 21st century understandings of the field. Naturally, we could not stop talking about this. While I had been wittering on about the moon as a projection of desire and unachievable/ unrealistic chastity, Sarah-Jane spoke about the perceived implications of lunar cycles on psychological stability.  She also noted – with apologies for seeming reductive – how the relationship between Salome and Herod evoked the grooming paradigm, in which the victim adopts manipulative tendencies to compensate for their experiences of subjugation.

Having approached the production from very different perspectives – as a theatre historian and a mental health researcher – we thought we’d share our experience in a well-meant effort to contribute to conversations about mental health and the arts.


A mental Health Researcher

It is not often that I see a production that I cannot stop thinking about. It is even more unusual that I see something with someone who enjoyed the production just as much as I did, but who had a completely different take on it and enjoyed it for entirely separate reasons. Salomé at the RSC has just provoked such a reaction. It was a staggering, raw, and unique portrayal of not just one, but two stories with its own contemporary nuance. To give it the further usual string of adjectives it was a sensuous, gory, glittering, horrible, thoroughly enjoyable (if uncomfortable), triumph of a production.

Just as a taster of one the bits I relished most (because you really must go and see this yourself, even if only to remove all your previous misconceptions about Salome), it was the way that they treated the idea of ‘lunacy’. The moon for many years was associated with mental illness and the term ‘lunacy’, something that was at one point enshrined in law in the England and came from the historical understanding that mental health conditions were affected by the lunar cycle. The moon in this staging of the play is not just central to the plot, but it is there on stage for the whole production as a blindingly obvious physical construct. It is the constant around which the actors revolve. Despite that, this production managed to encapsulate so many other more subtle understandings of mental health and illness. I work in mental health research and so to see something that nods not just to the original biblical context and understandings of the purported link with mental illness and the moon; but that then moves on to represent the struggles and challenges of the late 18th early 19th century context of Wilde’s work with the Lunacy Act in place, asylums operational and the illegality of homosexuality, was extremely impressive. The way that this play was staged, the brilliant cast, and the quality of the acting meant that it managed to tell both stories, whilst also drawing out contemporary issues around coercion, power, and the effects of grooming and manipulation. The production was very, very clever, as all this was managed without either labouring or trivialising the points. The actors delivered the script clearly and with meaning, whilst crafting a subtly delivered and diverse set of messages that spoke across the vast temporal distance this story has covered right through to the heart of contemporary debates.

There was so much in the play that I could happily return to watch it and still find new things to marvel over. It was intelligent and brilliantly acted by every single person on stage. Each member of the cast was at all times prickling with the anticipation of the coming drama. Seen in a full one and a half hour stretch, there was not a moment where the pace nor the suspense was lost. It was like running full speed out of control downhill until the inevitable moment of falling over takes your breath away. After the performance, I turned to my friend who had started talking to her neighbour in the seat next to her (whom neither of us knew) and we none of us could stop our conversation, which was bubbling over with enthusiasm for what we had just seen. We talked about it for half an hour in our seats after the performance had finished and long after people had left the Swan; we carried on talking all the way out of the theatre, down the road and all around the town, until we eventually parted with a promise to write a blog piece in order to share the experience.



All views expressed in this article are the authors’ own.

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Author:Anjna Chouhan

Anjna is Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

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