Mark Jackson’s ‘Salomania’ offers strikingly relevant depiction of WWI media sensationalism

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: 3/5 stars » Recommended)

This reviewer is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

The Cult of the Clitoris” was the shocking 1918 headline in the right wing journal Vigilante published by paranoid British politician Noel Pemberton Billing. Billing promoted the theory that secret agents of the Kaiser were attempting to undermine British morale and manhood by luring British men (and women) into secret cults of homosexuality and lesbianism. Billing was, at one point in his career, a respected member of the House of Commons.

The above paragraph describes actual history and is not the creation of a contemporary satirist. The Vigilante article referred to a private performance by dancer Maud Allan based upon Oscar Wilde’s Salome. Allan sued Billing for libel, and the resulting trial made sensational headlines for a war weary British public. Thus, the inspiration for Mark Jackson‘s new play, Salomania, currently in production at The Aurora Theatre in Berkeley.

Jackson tells the story effectively, moving the scene from the courtroom to the offices of Vigilante to a fox hole in France where British soldiers anxious for distraction follow the story with salacious interest.

Madeline H.D. Brown* as Maud Allan performs a scandalous dance in Mark Jackson’s Salomania. Photo: Aurora Theatre.
*Member, Actor’s Equity

The parallels to modern times are clear and make this a fascinating evening. The play is as relevant as last week’s headlines which told of a Michigan State legislator banned from the Assembly floor after using the word “vagina”.

The political content keeps things interesting throughout, but the piece is less effective on a personal level, with the actors performing in such an exaggerated and presentational manner that emotional content is short  changed. Nevertheless, there are some very affecting moments, particularly the excellent dance sequences featuring Madeline H. D. Brown as Maud Allan, and a foxhole scene in which a group of British soldiers debate the merits of different types of chocolate. The latter scene is puzzling until we gradually realize they are using the discussion to avoid facing the horror of their situation. It is quite chilling.

Overall, Mr. Jackson’s writing here is more successful than his direction, which is overwhelmed by a declamatory style that undermines the emotional impact. But there is enough to admire in this production to make up for its deficiencies, including the work of an excellent design team and Chris Black’s moving chroeography.

Salomania continues at The Aurora Theatre through July 22. For further information, click here.

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“Salomania”by Mark Jackson, produced by Aurora Theatre Company. Director: Mark Jackson. Set Designer: Nina Ball. Light Designer: Heather Basarab. Costume Designer: Callie Floor. Sound Designer: Matt Stines. Choreographer: Chris Black.

Maud Allan: Madeline H. D. Brown. Oscar Wilde/Judge Darling/Judge Murphy/Herbert Asquith/Soldier: Kevin Clarke. Sir Ellis William Hume-Williams/Solder: Alex Moggridge. Harold Spencer/Soldier: Anthony Nemirovsky. Noel Pemberton-Billing/Theo Durrant/Soldier: Mark Anderson Phillips. Margot Asquith/Eileen Villiers-Stuart/Isabella Durrant/Sara/Soldier: Marilee Talkington. Lord Alfred Douglas/Bartender/Soldier: Liam Vincent.

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