Madeline H.D. Brown is Maud Allan (center) in the world premiere of Mark Jackson’s Salomania at the Aurora Theatre Company. Below: Brown as Allan observes the testimony of Lord Alfred Douglas (Liam Vincent, right) in the courtroom of Judge Darling (Kevin Clarke). Photos by David Allen
If only a 94-year-old scandal were sensational in ways we no longer understood, we could look back and wonder what all the fuss was about and why the media underestimated the taste of the general public and why the general public was so content to be constantly underestimated.
Alas, not much has changed since the early 20th century criminal libel suit that American dancer Maud Allan brought against British newspaper publisher Noel Pemberton-Billing after he described the interest in her dance piece Vision of Salomé as the “cult of the clitoris.” That was the headline he used in his paper, the Vigilante, to describe the moral reprobates who were attracted to Allan’s version of the play by Oscar Wilde, which had been banned since Wilde’s very public downfall.
What we learn in Mark Jackson’s fascinating and at moments electrifying new play Salomania is that the media, though their aims may be occasionally true, are a pawn in larger political games and panderers to public taste, which they help shape.
Allan, who spent her childhood in San Francisco, was a sensation in London, and as such, she became a prime target for Pemberton-Billing to goad her into filing a libel suit against him. He had apparently tried and tried to get the local politicos to do the same thing, but none of them took his bait. But Allan, with her past family scandal (her brother Theo murdered two girls in San Francisco) and her desire to be a self-made woman, wasn’t about to let a rabble-rouser tarnish her good name (though her actual name was Beulah Maude Durrant). So, at the height of World War I, Allan squared off against Pemberton-Billing at the Old Bailey, the same courthouse where Wilde had seen his world crumble 25 years earlier.
This is prime material for a drama, and Jackson is just the writer/director to bring it to interesting and finely detailed life. A trial is, of course, a kind of theater in and of itself, so there’s a scorching good drama already built in – especially when Wilde’s “Bosie,” Lord Alfred Douglas, took the stand as a witness for Pemberton-Billing and dredged up all the turmoil and name calling and closed mindedness from 25 years earlier.
But Jackson takes a wider view beyond just the trial. He spends a good deal of time in the trenches of No Man’s Land, fighting alongside the British soldiers slogging through the mud of France. While we’re constantly reminded of how the British public was being distracted from the war by the sensation of the Allan trial, we see the soldiers completely captivated by scandal back home. One soldier even says the headlines, as they trickle in, are the only thing keeping him going.
Part of the irony in this complicated tale is that Pemberton-Billing wanted a sensational trial precisely so he could call attention to the failures of the British government and its weak peace plans and advocate for a swift and decisive end to the war. His theory, hatched with Harold Spencer, an American who served as a British secret agent, was that if they can bring attention to a German black book containing the names of 47,000 traitors to Her Majesty’s government, they could rally the troops, so to speak, infiltrate the vast German network of spies and accomplices and win the war for Britain.
That he wanted to do this by smearing the name of a dancer and aligning her with the same “moral perversity” nonsense that brought down Wilde is rather astonishing. But seeing how much traction this stunt got him is more than astonishing – it’s sickening.
Jackson is such an astute craftsman that he’s able to create a near-epic feel in the intimate Aurora. His cast of seven, all playing multiple roles except for Madeline H.D. Brown as Allan, makes a powerful impression as major historical figures, ordinary British citizens and beleaguered soldiers. Mark Anderson Phillips works up quite a froth as Pemberton-Billing, who represented himself in the libel case and apparently did so at very high volume. This man wanted to be heard, and he certainly was.
Brown’s Allan veers from being an ethereal presence, especially when she’s dancing (choreography by Chris Black) to an understandably tormented young woman who is far away from her damaged family and navigating the perils and pleasures of fame and notoriety on her own. As Judge Darling, the colorful presiding justice of the case, Kevin Clarke is having a marvelous time with the character’s eccentricity. Clarke also plays Wilde in an interesting if overlong scene toward the end of the play that could use more crackle.
Perhaps that particular scene suffers in comparison to an earlier scene, also set a table, between a soldier (Alex Moggridge) home in London on two days’ leave, and a war widow (Marilee Talkington) anxious to do her part and show the fighting men her appreciation. Jackson has two actors, both quite visible, on the floor rotating the platform on which the scene takes place (the fantastically utilitarian set is by Nina Ball). The effect is mesmerizing, and the scene is among the best in the 2 ½-hour play.
Liam Vincent is superb as Lord Alfred Douglas, with vestiges of his youthful brattiness still visible even has he fights to prove how much he has matured and changed since his association with Wilde. And Anthony Nemirovsky is great as Spencer, the American who’s on a crusade with Pemberton-Billing to change the course of the war. Watching Nemirovsky essay Spencer’s breakdown on the stand is absolutely thrilling (it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure to watch the blowhards, no matter how sincere, crumble).
Through it all, Jackson orchestrates the proceedings with lyrical moments of dance – not just Allan but also the soldiers in the trenches – and humor and horror. There’s a scene of a hanging that is so jarring it might as well have been real and not just a clever theatrical effect (with nods to lighting designer Heather Basarab and sound designer Matt Stines).
If Salomania is overstuffed with information and parallels to our own times, it’s completely understandable. This is rich, rewarding material, even if its observations about the third estate, wartime hysteria and the distraction of a good scandal are as alarming as they are entertaining
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Mark Jackson’s Salomania continues an extended run through July 29 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$48. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.