The Seven Veil Itch
Murder, madness, monstrous mothers and Marilyn Monroe add to the controversy of Gale Edwards’s new production for Opera Australia of Richard Strauss’s already controversial Salome. Michael Magnusson talks with Jacqueline Dark about playing the monstrous mother and other surprises in store when the opera opens in Melbourne next month.
Set in Biblical times the prophet John the Baptist is imprisoned in a sewer in the palace of the governor Herod. Herod has killed his brother then married his wife Herodias. Herod is now obsessed with his teenaged niece/step daughter Salome who in turn is infatuated by John the Baptist. At a banquet he promises Salome anything if she will dance for him. She demands the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter.
Already controversial for its final scene where Salome serenades the blood-drenched head, director Gale Edwards has rethought everything about the story with compelling results.
Edwards sheds new light on Herod and Herodias in particular. Before she evens comes on stage Herodias is denounced by John the Baptist as a depraved harlot.
“I’ve shagged half the army,” Dark jokes of her character.
“He says I’ve shagged all the captains, not the lowly soldiers. At least I go for the top brass,” she laughs.
Dark said working with the highly successful theatre, musical and opera director Edwards was demanding but rewarding.
“Gale does character analysis like nobody else,” Dark says. “Every single character has to be attuned to what’s going on and be completely focused for the whole show.”
Dark said Edwards encouraged her to abandon her ‘default’ upright stage position she uses for singing and contort herself like a tarantula.
“The result may not be the most beautiful singing but for Herodias it’s the way she is meant to look.
“She’s a terrible mother, absolutely appalling. She left her own daughter in this position where she can be prey to Herod. Herodias hates Salome and is jealous of her but, as Gale said; there must be times when Herodias wakes up at four in the morning with incredible guilt about the monster she has created in her daughter.”
Dark says that Salome’s deranged behavior in the final scene is the result of Herodias’s own corruption.
“She cannot believe what she is seeing Salome doing. She is deranged and Herodias created this beast.”
“But there’s not a character in it that’s not a complete looney, completely deranged and completely repulsive and without any redeeming features,” Dark adds.
“Even John the Baptist is deranged. He’s a religious zealot.”
Dark says murder and death is an everyday thing for the Herod family and Edwards has set the banquet against what looks like an abattoir. Animal carcasses hang behind the action in a metaphor for an environment where it is normal for someone to be beheaded to round off a dinner party.
“Gale never explicitly spoke about this to us but we knew that there were going to be people up the back of the stage slashing bits off the carcasses as we went,” Dark says.
“Emotionally that’s what we were doing, just tearing strips off each other and I love that there is that visual, literal ripping strips off the carcasses at the back of the stage while we are all doing it emotionally to each other at the front.”
Edwards has also broadened the religious debate which takes place in the opera introducing modern day Catholic and Greek Orthodox clergy and even a Brahmin priest. Dark goes on to explain that Herod is afraid to kill John the Baptist as he may be holy.
“So he calls in the leaders of all the religions in the world – which he can do because he has the power - to make a decision as to whether the man is holy or can he kill him because his wife is driving him nuts.”
For the pivotal ‘dance of the seven veils’, in which Salome cajoles Herod into his fateful promise, Edwards interprets the veils as veils women wear to titillate men. Soprano Cheryl Barker as Salome joins other dancers impersonating the Virgin Mary, French maids, pole dancers and even Marilyn Monroe in her classic Seven Year Itch ‘subway’ pose.
Dark said Barker has also thrown herself physically and vocally into the difficult title role creating her own vivid, crazed member of a highly dysfunctional family.
Watching her sing the final scene, with her covered in stage blood and not holding back at the fateful moment when she kisses the ultra-realistic head.
“I love the tongue bit when the whole audience groans.”
I’m backstage waiting for my last entrance and you hear ‘aaaauuuugh’,” she laughs, imitating the sound.
Salome: December 1-15, 2012. State Theatre, Arts centre Melbourne.
Information and bookings: 03 9685 3700 or opera-australia.org.au
(image) Cheryl Barker as Salome transformed into Marilyn Monroe in Opera Australia’s new production of Salome. Photos: Lisa Tomasetti