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Digital Subscriptions > > LIFTING THE VEIL


Written by Oscar Wilde in 1892, banned for its depiction of Biblical characters and finally debuting in France four years laters, Salomé is a powerful and intriguing diversion by its author from drawing-room comedies into tragedy — made all the more poignant by the fact Wilde was in prison for gross indecency when the curtain rose on the Paris production and had been dead for five years when it was first performed on a London stage in 1905. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, one of the greatest plays about unfulfilled desire penned by a man whose sexuality saw him incarcerated is getting its first ever Royal Shakespeare Company production.

When it came to choosing a seminal play to mark 50 years since homosexuality was made legal in England and Wales, director Owen Horsley seized on Salomé – not only because the Royal Shakespeare Company had never tackled Oscar Wilde before, but also because of the play’s resonance some 125 years after the legendary writer completed it. “It makes perfect sense to be doing a show by someone who is an iconic gay figure who was put in prison for being gay,“ Owen says, “but also this play is, for me anyway, the most directly related to him as a gay man.“

The Salomé of the title is Herod’s stepdaughter, a woman discovering her sexuality who is rejected by the prophet Iokanaan, does her famous dance of the seven veils to beguile everyone around her and demands the prophet’s head on a silver tray as payment. That’s the Biblical story, which because depiction of Biblical characters on stage was illegal, led to the play being banned while Sarah Bernhardt was rehearsing for its London debut. But, Horsley believes, the subtext is all about Wilde expressing his own desires subliminally at a time when doing so publicly would have meant a jail sentence.

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