Or, John the Baptist: Beyond Thunderdome, because as soon as you walk into the Hampstead Theatre's auditorium it's obvious how much inspiration designer Soutra Gilmour has taken from Mad Max. There's a huge gravel pit, a raised metal grille and men in tattered combat gear hanging off scaffolding. This is a world where at the centre is a prison cell holding a man spouting terrifying prophecies, so an apocalyptic-looking set seems appropriate. Jamie Lloyd's production can't be accused of subtlety but again this is entirely appropriate for Oscar Wilde's attempt to tell a Biblical story in the style of Greek tragedy. It was apparently his intention to write more tragedies, until first the triumph of his comedies and then the disasters of his personal life stopped him, so this play stands alone and seems to be considered a bit of a curiosity; it's certainly not easy to slot in with the witty epigrams most associated with Wilde.
It's an exciting evening though: The palace soldiers of various nationalities supply a form of chorus, although with slightly better defined individual personalities than you'd see in a Greek play; Con O'Neill's Herod, Jaye Griffiths' Herodias and Zawe Ashton's Salome exist in a manic royal bubble amongst them, the first two mainly powered by alcohol, this is a show about intoxication. They're drunk on wine, power, and sex. If this is a Greek tragedy, it's The Bacchae. Ashton plays Salome as a faux-innocent, gradually turning into a sort of deranged child - but the frequent protestations of Salome's virginity are made a mockery of by the fact that she keeps scratching her crotch in discomfort. In a production that drenches its cast in wine, blood and oil, half the fluids flying around seem to be coming from Con O'Neill himself: I've seen many an actor spray spit all over the stage as they project, but O'Neill's demented, out-of-control Herod seems to be constantly drooling. In a fairly small role Seun Shote is memorable as Iokanaan, the prophet rising from his pit in chains and covered in mud, giving the image of the unearthly creature that fascinates Salome. Jon Clark's lighting is also worth mentioning, as is Ben and Max Ringham's sound; everything conspires to a production that, like I say, doesn't go for subtlety but in the best traditions of production company Headlong brings a sense of danger and originality. One older woman did walk out during the famous sexy-dance; I'm not sure what she expected from a play called Salome. Ashton's dance isn't that graphic anyway, although come to think of it, the woman's objections might have had something to do with Herod's furious wanking.
Salome by Oscar Wilde is booking until the 17th of July at Hampstead Theatre.