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Paul Vallely: John, more Blake than bomber

25 August 2017

Paul Vallely is unconvinced by an RSC version of the Baptiser as a fundamentalist

Salome Receives the Head of John the Baptist, by the Italian Baroque painter Guercino

Salome Receives the Head of John the Baptist, by the Italian Baroque painter Guercino

WAS St John the Baptist a religious fundamentalist? Certainly that is the view of the actor playing him in the current production of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. He said as much to the RSC summer school last week.

I questioned him afterwards about this. To my mind, the Baptist is too mystical to be a fundamentalist. In secular terms, the last of the Old Testament prophets is a character more like William Blake than one of the 19th-century founders of Christian fundamentalism, or their modern-day equivalents in the so-called Islamic State.

To the actor, Gavin Fowler — who gives a compelling, muscular performance as the man Wilde chooses to call Iokanaan — the definition of fundamentalism seemed to be something to do with the Baptist’s uncompromising black-and-white view of the world.

There are echoes in the Baptist’s apocalyptic eschatology of the kind of thinking which has been laid bare this week in Peter Kosminsky’s extraordinary Channel 4 drama The State, which tells the story of four Britons who travel to Syria to fight for what they see as the Caliphate, and learn that they must be defeated in a battle against the Great Satan before final victory will be theirs.

Mr Kosminsky has got himself in trouble with simplistic critics, like one from the Daily Mail, who, after day one of the four-day drama, condemned the film as a jihadist recruiting exercise. Of course, what the director was doing was trying to explain the attraction of the inner logic that drives the extremists — before revealing the terrible reductio ad absurdum into which that logic leads.

I have just started reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, inspired by the recently concluded TV dramatisation. What is most striking about the writing is the shortness and simplicity of the sentences, which are all framed in the present tense. The effect is to infuse an inexorability into the narrative — and the trap into which religious literalism leads.

The RSC’s Salomé is disturbing not for fundamentalism, but for a very different kind of disengagement. Wilde’s highly charged poetic text is shot through with a gay sexuality which could find only veiled expression in the Victorian era. To bring that subliminal homoeroticism to the surface, the director, Owen Horsley, has cast a male actor to play Salomé. His intention is thereby to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

“Today, you don’t go to prison because you are gay, but being a gay man is still complex, especially in the context of gender,” he writes.

Salomé seems a very odd choice of play in this regard. At its core is a character whose unfulfilled desire is perverted into murder. The motive of this Salomé is only that the Baptist refuses to allow her to kiss his lips. A play that fuses sexuality and sadistic slaughter seems an odd vehicle for celebrating homosexuality or modern notions of gender fluidity. It certainly does not make the argument for John the Baptist’s being a fundamentalist fanatic.

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