With little but a series of washing lines, a catwalk of trestle tables, some loops of neon, and four michaelmas daisies on hospital gurneys, designer Joanna Parker sketches the chaos and stench of the Garter Inn and the quiet of Windsor Forest. Her colours are those of the Tudor rose - sturdy scarlets, clotted creams, and florid greens - while the costumes nod to Kiss Me Kate, Dr Seuss, and, oddly, I Dream of Jeannie. If Damiano Michieletto's direction is uneven in the ensembles and altogether over-reliant on fart jokes, his work on the individual characters is thorough; with particular emphasis on our corpulent hero, John Falstaff (Andrew Slater), whose greatest love is the vast belly that he strokes with the wide-eyed admiration of a heavily pregnant woman. With staunch support from Julie Unwin (Alice Ford), Wendy Dawn Thompson (Meg Page) and Ronald Samm (Bardolph), and an attractive role debut from Rebecca Bottone as the winsome Nannetta, this is a marvellous show. Furthermore, not a word of Andrew Porter's translation is lost.
How I wish I could say the same of Tom Hammond's translation of Salome. Alas, too many of his words are lost to the woolly maw of the Coliseum in Leah Hausman's revival of David Leveaux's 1996 English National Opera production, and in only one case is this due to poor diction. For a production that is only nine years old, Salome looks as raddled as a great beauty who is rarely away from her drinks cabinet. The set (Vicki Mortimer) and brooding lighting (Paul Pyant) still pack a cinematic punch, but after seeing Holocaust references in anything from Nabucco to Manon Lescaut, I think it's time to call a moratorium on using Nazi uniforms as directorial shorthand for evil. What is the deal here anyway? Is Herod a collaborator? And, if so, which occupied country are we in? What on earth is Jokanaan (Robert Hayward) saying? And if Gerald Barry gets surtitles, why not Richard Strauss? Having got that off my chest, I can turn to the reason I wanted to see this revival: Cheryl Barker. Childlike, seductive, crazed, cold, manipulative, and terribly vulnerable, Barker's first Salome is extraordinary to behold and quite beautiful to hear; a heroic extrapolation of the softer roles she has made her own thus far - Katya, Tosca, Butterfly, Jenufa - and a fearless extension of her acting and singing. Bryn Terfel's Wotan aside, this is the most impressive role debut I've heard this year. With Sally Burgess spitting and snarling like a feral cat as Herodias, John Graham Hall a viciously dissolute Herod, and Kwamé Ryan's confident conducting debut, Salome narrowly overcomes poor acoustics and a tired concept.
'Falstaff': Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury (01227 787787), from Thurs. 'Salome': The Coliseum, London (0870 145 0200), to 17 NovReuse content