Steven Berkoff’s Salomé


A new production of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé is touring the UK this month, a presentation of the Headlong company which will appear in a number of venues throughout the country but not in Manchester, unfortunately. My disappointment at this news prompted me by way of compensation to finally order a DVD of the Steven Berkoff production, a live performance filmed in Tokyo in 1992. I wish I’d done so sooner.


Herod (Steven Berkoff).

Berkoff’s production was first staged at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, in 1988. The play’s success led to a run at the National Theatre in London (with a Beardsley-derived poster) followed by performances worldwide. I don’t know how significant the original choice of venue was but the Gate Theatre was founded by Micheál MacLiammóir and Hilton Edwards in 1928. MacLiammóir was a great Wilde enthusiast whose one-man portrait of the writer, The Importance of Being Oscar, achieved considerable success in the 1960s. He would have relished Berkoff’s production.


Salomé (Myriam Cyr).

A few things about Berkoff’s drama strike the viewer right away: the staging is very spare in contrast to the 1920s costuming; the white face paint on the actors makes them seem simultaneously elegant and grotesque. Their costumes are almost entirely monochrome (black/blue & white) so that the red of Salome’s hair and lips is a rare and strident splash of colour. But one forgets this almost immediately when the actors begin to move. Aside from a few brief moments of hyper-activity the entire play is performed as if in slow motion and the effect is entrancingly hypnotic. The stage is bathed in blue-white moonlight yet the action may as well be taking place under water. This seems perfect for Wilde who has recourse to the word “languid” many times during The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Berkoff in his short DVD note says that he felt the slowed movements would help give the play a drugged and somnolent atmosphere. The sole exception to this is the figure of Iokanaan who remains seated centre-stage throughout. When he speaks the moonlight vanishes and he’s lit from above by a shaft of light which cleverly conveys the impression of his incarceration in a well. His movements are angry and forceful, as befitting an enraged prophet.


Herodias (Carmen Du Sautoy).

Berkoff’s other innovation is the heavy use of mime, something he’s done in other plays and which is very effective here. At the climax Salomé mimes her dance/striptease and also plays to an imaginary head which helps us concentrate on her words and performance rather than being distracted by a stage prop. The music by Roger Doyle is a suitably minimal accompaniment by a pianist in the shadows at the back of the stage.


The death of the young Syrian.


Iokanaan (Mark Lewis) and Salomé.

The performances are uniformly excellent with Berkoff himself in bravura form as Herod, a monarch who we see being domineering, petulant, boastful, insecure, lusting and childish, often managing to be several of these things in the space of a few seconds. Wilde’s ornamented speech is powerfully brought to life, Berkoff’s stand-out moment being the monologue near the end when he lists his riches in a frenzied attempt to persuade Salome to change her mind. Myriam Cyr’s Salomé is suitably innocent, tormented and obsessive while Carmen Du Sautoy’s Herodias is marvellously haughty and derisive in her debates with her husband. There’s little point detailing every aspect of the production, this recording needs to be watched, not described, and it should be evident by now that I enjoyed it a great deal. A remote and difficult drama is given the intensity its subject deserves. I don’t envy any contemporary company trying to follow a staging which is this bold and original.


Naaman the executioner (Peter Brennan).

The DVD is available from the usual outlets such as Amazon but I ordered mine direct from Berkoff’s website. Anyone with more than a passing interest in Wilde’s play needs to see this.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The Salomé archive

4 thoughts on “Steven Berkoff’s Salomé”

  1. Hello John! I just wanted to let you know that I’m doing my own production based on Salome later this year with my own company The Happiness Patrol, as part of the 2010 Lichfield Festival. We’re doing it as a live radio play staged in complete darkness, called Guilty Feet Have Got No Rhythm.

    I know Lichfield’s quite a way from Manchester, so it might not be very easy for you to come and see it, but I thought I should at least get in touch to tell you about it!

    Best wishes


  2. Thanks, Philip. Yes, Lichfield is rather out of the way since I don’t drive. Consequently travel anywhere tends to be an expedition. Best of luck with your production, however. I can imagine Wilde’s play working well as words alone, the descriptions are so rich.

  3. Thankyou both for your very kind messages! It will be a big challenge for us all, but I really do think we can make it work! The play is so insistent on all sorts of things which the audience (onstage and off) are supposed to look at – the moon, the dance, the head, and loads of others – and it’ll be interesting to look at ways of conjuring those images up for the audience just through words, sounds and music. I’ll let you both know how we get on!

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