Owen Horsley explains his approach to Salomé, casting and why Oscar Wilde's play matters in 2017.

How are you approaching Salomé and why?

For me Salomé is one of the greatest plays about unfulfilled desire and what is more it was written by a gay man who was expressing his desires at a time when it was illegal for him to do so. In this year, the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality, I felt it was important to view this play through a gay lens - to look back at the gay experience 50 years ago and now.

There is an acceptance for gay men now, you won’t go to prison like Wilde did and this play is no longer banned, but there is still a complexity to being a gay man in our society. This approach has very much come from the play, for me it comes from the man who wrote it and his words on the page.

Why have you cast a man in the role of Salomé?

The figure of Salomé is a taboo as she transgresses the boundaries of both male and female sexuality. I wanted to focus on that ambiguity of gender and as I am approaching this from the perspective of male sexuality I wanted a man to play the role. However, Matthew who is playing Salomé, will - through costume and actions - continually juxtapose male and female conceptions- remaining fluid throughout. When a man expresses a fluidity with their sexuality, there is still a chaos and anger in response to that. A gay man who doesn’t feminise or masculinise his sexuality still faces problems in society who can’t understand or accept that ambiguity.

Owen Horsley smiling seated in a red chair in front of framed pictures from Henry IV
Owen Horsley previously directed The Famous Victories of Henry V for schools.
Photo by Jamie Graham © Jamie Graham Browse and license our images

Why is it important to do this play now?

I want to celebrate a world where you don’t go to prison because you are gay, but I also feel that during this year of the anniversary [of the decriminalisation of homosexuality] it’s important to acknowledge that being a gay man is still complex. Especially in the context of gender. This play feels perfect for this moment, because it feels to me Wilde is writing from his own experience as a gay man.

There is still a sense of shame, an element of vulnerability and this requirement for male and female to be defined terms. And we still live in a world where in the first two months of this year seven transgender Americans have been murdered and less than a year ago 49 people were murdered in a hate crime at a gay nightclub in Orlando. This gay version of Salomé who chooses to express themselves freely to the world and is punished for it still exists.

How different will the text be from the original?

I’m in love with what Wilde wrote, this is from his gut, it’s poetic, visceral and muscular. I didn’t want to change or interrupt what reads to me as a stream of consciousness, so have only made very limited cuts. The challenge is making the text work and that’s what I’ll develop with the company through rehearsals.

Can you tell us about your plans for the costume and set design?

The design will lean towards modern, you will see an extension of the Swan theatre and we will use all the space. This play is a love letter to theatre and I want to explore the theatricality of the text. The set and costumes will be an extension of the decadent and sensual text.

Why does the music of Perfume Genius work for your production?

For me Perfume Genius speaks about a modern gay experience. It’s still a complex issue being gay in society, it’s still hard to express yourself, avoid labels, Perfume Genius writes about that. It’s a very personal choice, but I feel he universally expresses the very internal experience of what it means to be gay today.

Will the production be suitable for all ages?

I feel strongly that the production will speak very directly to a teenage audience, the play has the emotional freedom that you experience as a teenager, when you are still finding your way in the world. It will be challenging, but I hope a good conversation starter for families with older children.