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The Picture of Dorian Gray

by on 24 April 2019

Into a Glass Darkly

The Picture of Dorian Gray

by Oscar Wilde, adapted by Séan Aydon

Tilted Wig Productions at Richmond Theatre until 27th April, then on tour until 18th May

Review by Mark Aspen

If conscience could be put into abeyance, where would that leave morality? Tilted Wig’s stylish and innovative production firmly tilts Wilde’s Faustian parable of the nature of morality towards us all, in a setting that hints constantly at reflections.

Director Séan Aydon’s bold adaptation condenses Oscar Wilde’s only novel down to a two hour melodrama that overplays and underplays the story’s themes in equal measure. As a piece of theatre, it is a triumph, but it is a triumph with “buts” …

The eponymous Dorian Gray’s soul-selling licenses him to exploit his youthful good looks and vigour in pursuit of a life of pure hedonism, whist its consequences are transferred onto a painted portrait which bears the disfigurement of his decline into dissolution. So Gray gives the excitement of evil full throttle and the picture takes the kickback.

DGray Company (2)

A clear triumph is Sarah Beaton’s design. The set is a mansion of not so much faded grandeur as dank dilapidation, decay instead of decoration: Gray’s world is grey. The effect is old-master symbolism; think Jan Gossaert. The period of the costumes is fugitive, not 1890 Wilde, not 2019 London, but disconcertingly in-between. Jon McLeod’s music and soundscape is eerie, startling, yet ephemeral. Matt Haskins lighting is atmospheric chiaroscuro. The whole design induces uneasiness, although pointing to perennial themes in the plot. “But” a purist might feel short-changed of a period piece, and subtlety is sometimes lost with sudden music punctuations or lighting pointing out weapons ahead of the plot. Audience mumblings suggested that playing nineteen scenes in multiple locations on a single set baffled some.

The plot revolves around the three principal men, Dorian Gray, Basil Hallward an established society portrait artist, and the Mephistophelean Lord Henry Wotton. It is implied that all three are bisexual, although the homoerotic undertones in Wilde’s original are downplayed; and to advantage, as the 1890 legal and social constraints lack relevance in the indeterminate setting. Nevertheless, there is an emotional power-play between the three, who all take wide emotional journeys as the plot relentlessly enfolds.

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When we first meet Dorian Gray, he is self-effacing, diffident, personable. He can hardly believe that an eminent artist admires his beauty and has captured it on canvas, to the delight of both of them. Gavin Fowler plays Dorian as an easy-moving innocent abroad, apparently oblivious to the attentions of two older men. He is to take the longest emotional journey, as he is seduced into abandoning concepts of morality as artificial, and taking an accelerating downward path to depravity. Fowler’s depiction of Dorian’s decline to indifferent coldness, then to arrogant heartlessness, and on to a cruel callousness that borders on psychopathy is chillingly believable.

Dorian has become a muse to the artistic temperament of Basil who now cannot bear to part with his Mona Lisa creation. Basil’s attraction to Dorian is quite clear but his relationship is platonic and becomes increasingly protective. Basil’s is the voice of conscience for Dorian, but one of rapidly waning effect.

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The catalyst for Dorian’s decline is Lord Henry Wotton, a hedonistic arch-cynic. He is intrigued when he sees the sublime portrait created by his former Oxford chum, Basil, and insists on meeting Dorian, whom he then proceeds to indoctrinate with his personal philosophy. Morally is an illusion, self-pleasure is paramount and all that matters is youth and its beauty. Henry’s seductive sardonic style captivates Dorian. Henry gets all the best Wildean aphorisms; oh yes, including the cynic being one “who knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing”, rather contrarily from Henry’s mouth.

Jonathan Wrather certainly looks the part of the louche Henry, oiled-back hair, complete with devilish widow’s peak as slick as his silver tongue. He plays Henry as a suave Lothario, totally self-centred. There is a sense of untamed menace showing beneath the urbane veneer. The body-space intrusions and sweeping gait speak it all. Henry’s subjugation of Dorian’s morality is almost engineered. He is the Screwtape who feeds the rope for Dorian’s ethical gallows.

D Gray 1Dorian squirms a bit on this ethical rope, and we long for redemption when early on he seems to fall in love with Sybil Vane, a rising young actress of some clear talent. Henry does not approve of Sybil, or of her socially inferior status, whereas Sybil’s sister Catherine does not approve of Dorian, and makes her views strongly felt. “If he harms her I will hunt him down like a dog”, she spits. Nevertheless, Dorian and Sybil become engaged to be married. However, on the day that Henry and Basil come to the theatre to see her perform Shakespeare, she fluffs her part as Juliet, for acting no longer matters now she is in love for real. Her change of image for Dorian knocks her off of the pedestal he had made in his mind for her, and he cruelly jilts her. “Now, you don’t even stir my curiosity”. Sybil is so distraught that she commits suicide. (The character’s name is thought to be an amalgam of characters from romantic-tragic novels by Disraeli, but note the classical allusion to the prophetess who stood at the gates of Hades.) Kate Robinson’s bubbly innocent Sybil is spot on and her rendering of the dejected and rejected fiancée is heart breaking.

The philosophy of Henry admits no such mishaps, and he convinces Dorian that the suicide was no more difficult for her than acting Ophelia or Desdemona, her “greatest romantic tragedy”. They go off together to the opera, followed by a night on the tiles with another woman.

There is an exquisite tiny cameo by Samuel Townsend as Dorian’s manservant, trying to wake him from his hangover the next day; just in the actor’s body language and look of pure disdain. Townsend also gave us a great piece of comic relief in his Romeo, a textbook exemplar of Victorian declamatory acting.

Dorian, horrified to see a twisted look of cruelty on the hitherto pristine portrait of himself, which is now in his possession, hides it beneath a sheet (of anachronistic bubble-wrap). But now we can only recoil at his state of mind, as he visits the mortuary where Sybil’s body lies, not to see her, but to ask “What does it feel like to cut up a dead body?” of a pathology student he meets. This is Ellen Campbell, a lovely young woman, who he then seduces. Adele James (doubling also as a feisty Catherine Vane) depicts Ellen’s conflicted emotions with pinpoint accuracy.

D Gray 7Henry has a dismissive attitude to his own brittle marriage, one largely of convenience, to Victoria. Such now is Dorian’s depravity that he seeks out his mentor’s wife. However, does he seduce her, or does she seduce him? He meets his match, for Lady Wotton is a lady to be reckoned with. Not only is this goose for Henry’s gander, but Lady W obviously relishes the frisson of danger in flirting with a now near-psychopath. Phoebe Pryce is peerless as the elegant, statuesque Lady Victoria Wotton, cool and deliciously in control.

The depths are plumbed when Henry organises a drug-fuelled sex orgy to fire Dorian’s perversions further. The staging is stylised as a dance to heavy-metal music and bathed in red light. Under Jo Meredith’s choreography the effect is mesmerising, as the convulsive dance of depravity explodes into exhaustion. The morning after the night before, Dorian’s rules are dehumanising; all should leave without knowing even each other’s names.

D Gray Company

Eighteen years of Dorian’s excess take their toll on Henry’s now jaded appetite for sensual pleasure. Meanwhile Basil has observed the vileness of the situation he has created in encapsulating the consequences of Dorian’s amoral life into the once beautiful picture. It is with barely disguised disgust, deep regret at his actions, and mounting fear at the outcome that Basil visits Dorian to ask for the portrait back. He wishes to exhibit it in Paris and there stay for many months to work on a redemptive piece of art. But when he sees the horror of Dorian’s life that has been subsumed into the portrait, now an image of a hideous monster, he is overcome with fear and can only plead for divine intervention through his prayers. Basil’s voice of conscience now speaks loudly to Dorian, but he only wants it silenced. So he kills the voice of conscience. Dorian’s stabbing of Basil to death is vicious in its mechanical brutality (another all-too realistic creation of acclaimed fight director Bethan Clark). “But” pity about the over-manged neatness of the enactment on a precisely placed piece of bubble wrap. (Doesn’t Kensington gore clean off as easily as it used to?)

Daniel Goode gives a superbly nuanced performance as Basil Hallward. The slight campness in the open scenes is replaced by a true representation of the character’s sense of responsibility as he becomes more grounded in the realisation of the uncontrolled wantonness he has released. The awkwardness of trying to say the right thing is gradually replaced by guilt at the unbridled atrocities his once greatest masterpiece has uncaged. Goode subtly portrays all these registers of mood.

The big “but” comes towards the end of the play when the adaptation seems to have said all it needs to, and yet still goes on, perhaps intending to get in all of the details of Wilde’s novel into the closing scenes, rather than accepting the essence of the tale. It then begins to feel too long. It is a pity. A small “but” is a problem that is becoming perennial, that is the way television acting seemingly spoils an actor’s need to keep the delivery big enough to actually be heard at the back of the stalls. When so much of the joy of Wilde’s writing is the cleverness of the wit, it is a huge shame not to hear it.

Nevertheless, this is a piece of theatre that is a sophisticated statement of complex psychological, philosophical and spiritual question of the nature of morality. Why and how do we have a conscience? This play never shows us the final picture of Dorian Gray, but we see the transparent canvas as he lifts it to look at himself. And then we see ourselves reflected. The floor of the stage, the base parts, are also reflective. Maybe without constraints, any of us could be a Dorian Gray. Moreover, it is not bound by spatial or temporal anchors. So the where and when are irrelevant too.

How would we behave if we could put our conscience into abeyance, park it on a portrait, later to pick up our unsullied selves? No, no, The Picture of Dorian Gray tells us, our conscience is what we are, and when our conscience dies, so do we.

Mark Aspen
April 2019

Photography by Craig Sugden


From → Drama, Reviews

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