Madeline H. D. Brown and Alex Moggridge in “Salomania”
Photo by David Allen
Written and directed by Mark Jackson
Aurora Theatre (world premiere), Berkeley, Calif.
June 15-July 22, 2012
History is messy. Things happen that give rise to other things that happen and, before you know it, there are a whole bunch of things happening at the same time. This works out all right with history but, unless you’re Tom Stoppard – and not always then – it is rather difficult to present on the stage.
Mark Jackson’s “Salomania,” in its world premiere at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre (see video clip below), is extremely interesting. It takes place in 1918, near the end of WWI, weaving the threads of warfare, politics, sexuality, art, patriotism and jurisprudence into an intricate tapestry that is fascinating to unravel. Trouble is, Jackson has so many balls in the air, it’s difficult to keep them up there without fumbling one or two.
Built around the sensational trial of Maud Allan (Madeline H.D. Brown, lovely, dignified and resplendent in the garb of an exotic dancer – wonderful costuming by Callie Floor), who sued a tabloid publisher for libel when his rag, The Vigilante, claimed she was involved in “The Cult of the Clitoris” (a word that is hilariously misunderstood by the judge). In the course of the trial, reference is made to a mysterious “Black Book” which cannot be produced but is said to contain the names of thousands of Englishmen (and women) who have been targeted by the German enemy for possible collaboration. Maud’s name is allegedly in the book, as well as the former prime minister, whose wife is her close friend.
The author Oscar Wilde, though long dead, is on trial (yet again) as well. Allan specializes in private performances of his “Salome,” which is officially banned from the public stage. Hence she is labeled immoral and degenerate, as well as subversive. It all feeds upon the country’s war-weariness and post-Victorian sexual repression. Intercut with the courtroom drama, we have scenes in the trenches. There’s a lot going on and the play feels very long.
The performances are terrific, with everybody except Brown doubling and tripling seamlessly in various roles. Marilee Talkington, the only other woman in the show, does yeoman duty as the prime minister’s elegant wife, Maud Allan’s mother, a smarmy witness for the defense and – most touchingly – a young war widow who hooks up with a soldier in a pub. Kevin Clarke is a puckish judge, as well as the ghost of Oscar Wilde. Mark Anderson Phillips rants a bit too much as Noel Pemberton-Billing, the libelous publisher, but he is gentle as Maud’s brother, condemned to death for a crime he may not have committed. Liam Vincent is marvelous as Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s lover who is dredged up as a witness for the defense. Anthony Nemirovsky is the sleazy journalist who wrote the libelous story in the first place (for reasons of his own, it turns out) and Alex Moggridge is Maud’s dignified prosecuting attorney. They all play soldiers and each is given a personality of his (or her, in the case of Talkington) own.
The set, by Nina Ball, works wonderfully as courtroom, battlefield, drawing room and theatrical stage and Matt Stines’ sound and lights, by Heather Basarab, contribute much to the shock of the realistic battle scenes, Maud’s brother’s hanging and the ghostly mood of Maud’s fantasies and recollections. Music, by Eric Satie, Richard Strauss and others, underscores the action. Brown is lovely in her role but, eventually, the other players begin to steal the scene. It is intentional. Through most of the second act she wanders like a specter, wearing her Salome costume, a bit player in her own tragedy. Because, truly, it wasn’t really about her at all.