Powerful performances in youth theatre at its best

I love a show where you are not quite sure whether it has begun or not. As dear old Sam Beckett used to say: “Let’s begin at the beginning, or is it the beginning, or has it already begun …”

So with the opening of Shetland Youth Theatre’s production of the Oscar Wilde “tragedy in one act” Salome. As the audience are coming into the theatre the on-stage “guests” are arriving in the cafe scene which spills off the stage and almost into the stalls. The scene that is being conjured on stage is not the one you would normally expect in the court of Herod and Herodias but is set in the 1920s gangsterland you would more associate with Al Capone.

Then another aspect begins to dawn about this production. All the blokes, gangsters and all, are played by girls and all the flapper-styled women are played by blokes. A world where the gangster molls tower over their testosterone-fuelled male escorts appears incongruous at first but settles as they assemble into the casino club and enjoy the cabaret being performed live by chanteuse Izzy Swanson and pianist Philip Taylor.

But has it begun yet or are we waiting for the beginning? The audience lights are still on and some audience still arriving. Then on stage a bit of commotion as what appears to be a special group of characters arrive, in the midst of which is a particularly elaborate personage complete with a peacock head-dress and beautifully elegant flapper garb.

“How beautiful is the Princess Salome to-night!” is a cry from the crowd as this special party, looking a little regal, settle into their own reserved table in the cabaret club. The singing is ended and there is still some gangster banter on stage. But has it begun yet?

The houselights go down and the lights on stage become brighter, but the stage banter continues in a similar way. Lots of reference to the paleness of the Princess, the moon and how Queen Herodias decries her husband because of his longing looks towards the Princess.

Then two gangsters wrenched open a grill on the front of the stage and dragged a character out in chains. He/she is soon identified as Iokanaan, Wilde’s chosen name for John the Baptist, and he makes his famous prophecy about the one who comes after him of whom he is not worthy to loosen the latchet of his shoes. I guess it has begun now and we are thrust into the great drama which will soon unfold.

I must admit that throughout this prolonged introduction, with its casino setting and gangsters played by girls with male flappers for molls, I was beginning to fear that we may have a sort of Bugsy Salome acted out for us. How wrong I was. How utterly and profoundly wrong I was.

As John Haswell’s production of the intriguing story of how Salome develops a fascination with the Iokanaan and builds towards the inevitable climax that we all know will happen, we will be treated to some of the most outstanding performances I have ever seen from a youth theatre group – and I have a 43-year background in community arts.

There was one performance in particular that I will not forget in a long time. Harry Whitham plays Salome with all the sensuality and dramatic intensity that the role requires.

Had one not read the cast list in the programme I bet most people would have assumed that this role was being played by a girl. But no. Harry Whitham took us on a journey of seductive sexual passion that was physically riveting and consummate in its intense acting out of desire and provocation.

Salome’s desire to consume the passion of Iokanaan and her provocative enactment in goading her father to confound all his personal and religious principles in delivering the head of Iokanaan to his step-daughter princess.

The scene where Salome plays with the head of Iokanaan was full of profound passion and sensual possessiveness. So powerful was this performance that it bordered on a sinister evocation of innate evil which we were compelled to experience in a voyeuristic way.

It was uncomfortable to watch in places, but then you remembered that this was nothing more than great acting. There was a moment when Salome rose from a laying position to an upright position and it was one of the most sensual acts I have seen – with a boy playing a girl to boot.

Ellen Smith as King Herod was equally powerful in a role that demands the struggle against his wish to impress Salome and his utter abhorrence in carrying out the outrageous act being requested of him.

In Ellen Smith’s performance we actually experienced such conflicts in a similar way as the great Greek tragedies functioned, allowing the audience to share in a vicarious experience that was enlightening and cathartic. The expressions on her face, as Herod was absorbed with the guilt of his dilemma, told the story even more powerfully than the words she was so eloquently saying.

Herodias, another powerful performance, was played by Samuel MacCormack with just the right degree of disdain for her husband and unbridled joy in the torment that her daughter Salome had poured upon him.

Herod was a broken man and cut a pathetic figure as he left the casino, pausing only to tell the gangster doormen to “kill her!” As in all the best tragedies the misguided heroic figure is given her comeuppance, this time by the cruel blasts from not one but two tommy guns. It was a perfect ending to a perfect production and we all went home suitably chastened.

I have highlighted three key performances but the ensemble acting from the rest of the company created an environment where this intense tragedy could be enacted.

This was youth theatre at its very best, with a strong feeling of support evident from the way actors related to each other. I gather that the brave choice of play and the decision to take reversed roles were all made by members of the group themselves. I commend their courage.

Jeff Merrifield


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