Arts: Prance of the seven veils

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OSCAR WILDE'S Salome drives directors to extremes. Responding to the play's hypnotic, incantatory rhythms and exorbitant imagery, Steven Berkoff's 1988 production seemed to be taking place on the ocean floor as the characters, transformed into decadent Twenties socialites, waded and drawled their way through the perverse proceedings. Lindsay Kemp, seizing on its anti-naturalism, converted the work into a transvestite all-male ballet where the dance of the seven veils, in exposing the bald, naked man under the heroine's elaborate costume and wig, implied that Salome was more idea than woman.

Now, in the first venture of a scheme to take the Gate Theatre's work into larger spaces and, by co-producing, earn enough money at last to pay the actors, Mick Gordon offers an arrestingly stark vision of the play, mostly in modern dress.

Performed in a harsh, striped setting, it is a production that operates by suggestive paradox. Laying stress on his tantalising unattainability, John the Baptist's dank cistern of a prison is evoked by a tall set of stepladders on which Tristan Sturrock's wild-eyed prophet perches and releases invisible drops of water from his fingers which fall with a heightened splashing sound. This sets up a rhythmic expectation that enables the moment of his murder to be conveyed by nothing more sensational than the simple intensifying of our awareness of silence when he stops.

Brilliantly communicated, too, is the moment where Emily Woof's Salome receives the prophet's head. While she is speaking, Sturrock dismounts from the ladder, walks towards her and, when she grips him by the chin, suddenly twists his body and lets it go limp so that she has to support the whole weight of it by the head. In the stage picture this creates, there is a perverse and moving hint of a pieta - she has killed the things she genuinely, if obsessively loved, as Wilde said each man is fated to do.

There is an uneven match, though, at the centre of the production. Greg Hicks gives a performance of hilariously rattled dynamism as the gross, equivocating Herod. In bare feet and a tatty, crushed-velvet frock coat, he hurtles round like some seedy showman desperate to disguise his suspicion that the acts have taken another booking.

The speech in which he offers Salome a vast array of kinky jewels if she will give up her request for the Baptist's head, is delivered here with the pleading palms and inflections of a comically distraught Jewish haggler.

"I have a crystal into which it is not lawful for a woman to look," he informs her, his face straining with the effort of invention, "nor may young men behold it till they have been beaten with rods". Some stone.

In her vest, white jeans, sneakers and piled-up hair, Emily Woof makes a sexy and highly contemporary Salome, but her weedy voice is too unmusical and her body language too demonic to do justice to the part or to explain why Herod finds her so compelling.

The seven veils dance is an embarrassingly inept display of auto-erotic rubbings and leapings into the air. There was once a book called Not in the Fridge, Salome. Here you want to shout, "Not on the dance floor, darling".

Paul Taylor

To 13 Dec (0181-237 1111)