From the very beginning we all felt that there was something special happening in rehearsals. I remember reading the play last year, when I had my audition, thinking how on earth you could make the play work for 2017? When you read it, it feels declamatory and old fashioned. But over the course of our rehearsals I have come to appreciate that it is far from what I originally thought.

Our rehearsals started with a lot of physical work. We were searching for a physical language that might be brought to the play. There were many improvisations that we did around themes of power and status. Never have I sweated so much. We would leave rehearsals exhausted but also elated. We knew that we were searching for a way into the play from a 2017 perspective. Every exercise we did seemed to be adding to the possibilities of what the play could be.

Gavin Fowler in the centre of the rehearsal room with arms out in front of him
Photo by Byron Mondahl © The artist Browse and license our images

A male Salomé and a gay writer

We also had a male Salomé, and we explored the implications of our perspective. Some improvisations resembled cruising in a gay club. Looking, watching, reacting to unspoken signals given. This put us firmly in the world of desire and power. Other times a simple unconventional hug exercise led to an orgy of writhing bodies. But the most amazing thing about that is that everyone was on the same page, trying their best to find a route through the exercises for themselves and to see how far we could go. It takes bravery and courage to do that, especially with a group of people who barely knew each other. And everyone contributed. By the end of the exercises we all had an idea of what our play could be. Our Salomé as written by the gay writer, Oscar Wilde.

We did research projects about what was happening in the world for homosexuals during different decades. One group had the 1960’s, another the sexually liberated 70’s, then the Aids crisis in the 80’s, a further group had coming out of the Aids crisis to the 90’s and then the last group had the noughties. What gay life is like today. We had to present these projects to each other and I think we all learnt a great deal about the struggles that people have had in the past and even today. We laughed and cried and we came to understand that we all had an empathy with the subject. Some struggles that you think must surely have passed into history by now, continue. Loneliness and isolation that a gay person might have felt in the 1960’s with laws of criminality in full force is now reflected in the loneliness and isolation caused by social connection apps. It put a lot of things into perspective and helped us understand why this play is so poignant seen from a gay angle.

Oscar Wilde was gay and he paid the ultimate price for that. His health and life were destroyed by a system of law that criminalised who he was and we came to understand that the play, seen through the eyes of our incredible director, Owen Horsley, spoke to us today of desire, passion and what happens to people who dare to feel in a world that will not face itself, a world that will not feel.

The RSC organised such an incredible event for us too. We arrived at Tate Britain an hour before opening and had a private viewing of the Queer British Art Exhibition. It was deeply moving to see the portrait of Oscar Wilde done by Robert Harper Pennington right next to the door of his prison cell that he was kept behind in Reading Goal. I tried to imagine how much Wilde must have hated that door. The symbol of everything that was keeping him bound just for being homosexual. Another article on display that really touched me was the calling card that the father of Bosie (Oscar's lover) father left at Oscar’s club. Bosie’s father hated Oscar for what he felt was the defilement of his son, and left a card for Oscar saying: 'For Oscar Wilde, posing Sodomite.' That card led to his court case, imprisonment and eventually his death.

A portrait of Oscar Wilde (left) hanging on a purple wall next to a cell door (right)
Photo by Byron Mondahl © The artist Browse and license our images

Soon we started to get the play up on its feet. There were changes and tweaks and then some more changes, and each time it was like looking through a pair of binoculars being refocused until everything became sharp and clear. This has been our process. And it is still always changing. Certain elements are set but Owen likes to keep the actor as free as possible so that you can react in the moment. Be in the moment.

This means for us that each night things may flow in a different direction within a series of set moments that must happen for the play to make sense. This is very freeing and it’s asking that we, as an ensemble, listen and react to each other moment by moment in the play. Owen is an incredible director, willing to try anything but with a razor-sharp eye for what does or doesn’t work. And there is a feeling that the actors are being treated as artists. This makes us empowered to try any suggestion. I have never seen a cast of actors so keen to try anything.

One of the most iconic moments of the play is the Dance of the Seven Veils. We did many improvisations around this, and elements of the improvisation have made their way into the dance. Polly, our movement choreographer, took what she saw and has adapted it into the dance. She has kept us on our toes literally and figuratively throughout the process. There was always something new to explore and not all of it has made its way to the stage. That’s just how it is.

The music of Perfume Genius was introduced from an early stage in rehearsals. I had never heard of him before and now am so glad that we are using his work. Laura Bangay, our musical director, has created a powerful set of music that accompanies the play. I am looking forward to each audience being touched by it. Perfume Genius is a gay singer/songwriter who sings about themes that connect deeply to the play.

It’s very gratifying seeing everyone work so hard towards a common goal and I have been amazed at the wealth of ideas that have been at play in rehearsals. I have such a small role in this, speaking-wise, but I am part of a beautiful ensemble created over the rehearsal process. We are all deeply proud of the play and feel we have ownership of it and are a happy company. It is gratifying to celebrate such an important anniversary as the decriminalisation of homosexuality in this way.

cast of Salome on the steps of the Tate
The cast of Salomé on the steps of Tate Britain
Byron Mondahl

Byron Mondahl

Byron Mondahl is an actor who enjoys thinking about and writing about the elusive art of acting. He is from South Africa where he first began acting but has lived in the UK since 2005 when he studied at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. He has taught English in Taiwan, and also lost six stone and transformed his life for the better. Follow him on Twitter @ByronMondahl

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