Writer: Oscar Wilde
Adapted by: Lucy Shaw
Director: Tom Littler
Set/Lighting: William Reynolds
Sound: Matt Eaton
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Jermyn Street Theatre’s Pictures of Dorian Gray, premiered at the Stephen Joseph’s McCarthy Theatre, is, without doubt, a bold concept brought to fruition with stylish elegance. What is less certain is how fully it communicates the drama and the narrative of Oscar Wilde’s novel.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is, of course, the one about the portrait in the attic, but its Gothic decadence makes the concept of eternal youth and beauty rather less than attractive. Basil Hallward, a serious-minded artist, paints the portrait of his friend Dorian to whom he is so devoted that he will not exhibit the painting because it reveals too much of himself. Sir Henry Wotton, another friend, corrupts the innocent Dorian who becomes so infatuated with his own beauty as captured by Hallward that he sells his soul for permanent youth, the painting meanwhile changing with his ageing and sinning. The first major sin is his treatment of Sybil Vine, a young actress in a down-at-heel theatre whom he loves and destroys. Thereafter it’s a course of debauchery and crime, even murder until he finally confronts what he has become by facing up to the portrait.
Lucy Shaw’s version incorporates Wilde’s defence of his “immoral” story – the stance that no piece of literature is morally good or bad, simply well or badly written – and creates a constant background of statements and fragments alluding to art and virtue. The result is often poetic, but the treatment of the main narrative can be confusingly allusive.
The most remarkable feature, however, is the casting of Tom Littler’s production. Four actors, two male, two female, take the parts of Dorian, Sir Henry, Basil and Sybil, plus – in the case of all except Dorian – assorted smaller parts. Each role is played during the run by both a male and a female actor so that, by using all the combinations, four different cast patterns are available, each having played for two or three performances at Scarborough.
Thus it seems unreasonable to review this production on one performance, but unfortunately, it was not possible to attend any of the performances with a male Dorian. On the surface, the gender exchange seems not to have been thought through, but this may well be cunning on the part of Littler and Shaw, in a world of ambiguity where some characters change gender, others don’t. There are certainly elements of confusion: in one version, for instance, Sybil
Vane is decidedly male, but plays parts such as Rosalind, and falls in love with a woman (s)he knows only as Prince Charming.
In the first version seen, Helen Reuben’s Dorian Gray is poised and controlled, developing hard-faced selfishness as time goes on. The most striking performance comes from Richard Keightley as an urbanely immoral Henry Wotton. Everything is stylish, with frequent dramatic lighting and atmospheric ambient sound creating a tension that the action doesn’t always fulfil.
The second version comes out as something rather more dramatic, Augustina Seymour’s edgy Sir Henry prompting a more passionate Dorian from Reuben and one that conveys the character’s joy in life before corruption sets in. Keightley meanwhile brings more intensity to Sybil and is unfailingly expressive in the anonymous commentary that falls to the lot of the least busy actor.
Stanton Wright – who plays Dorian Gray in the two unreviewed versions – brings the necessary sincerity to the thankless part of Basil.
Despite Dorian’s involvement with Sybil and other women, the homoerotic element in The Picture of Dorian Gray is highly charged. In Pictures, it is replaced by ambiguity. It’s interesting that the production is more compelling on second viewing, but maybe a true version of Dorian Gray needs to shock.
Runs at Jermyn Street Theatre, London, from June 5, 2019 | Image: Contributed