Writer: Oscar Wilde
Adaptors: Merlin Holland and John O’Connor
Director: Peter Craze
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
125 years ago, before the arrival of cosmetic surgeons and Botox, Oscar Wilde’s only novel told of how Dorian Gray preserved his youth and beauty by selling his soul to the Devil. His portrait would grow older, but his body would remain untouched by age.
For this anniversary production, Merlin Holland (Wilde’s grandson) and John O’Connor have created a literate adaptation for the stage, remaining faithful to the story of the novel. Guy Warren-Thomas is a youthful Dorian, handsome, vain and capricious, who sits for portrait painter Basil Hallward (Rupert Mason), an adoring admirer.
The painter introduces him to his acquaintance, the louche and sardonic Lord Henry Wotton (John Gorrick), who leads him towards a licentious lifestyle. His flirtation with the young actress Sybil Vane (Helen Keeley) results in tragedy and sets him on a path to self-destruction.
Wilde is warning us to be careful what we wish for, showing us the perils of hedonism and living a life that has been stripped of structure and discipline. Conversely, he also takes several swipes at a social order that is too stifling and intolerant of individual expression.
The friendship between Dorian and Wotton, as portrayed here, invites comparisons with Wilde’s real life relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, yet the adaptors go only a little way towards exploring the story’s homoerotic subtext, perhaps missing out on opportunities that modern day attitudes would give them. The infatuation that both Wotton and Hallward have for Dorian is never allowed to speak its real name, making this play a version of the story that could well have been written in the same era as the novel.
An abundance of typical Wildean wit, particularly in the dialogue of Wotton, makes the first act play something like “The Importance of Being Dorian”, superficial, irreverent in tone and highly entertaining. Peter Craze’s production also brings in comedy of a different style by having Mason, Gorrick and Keeley share all the minor roles, cutting across age and gender. The appearances of these three, sometimes wearing bizarre costumes, brings sniggers that may not always be welcome.
So strong is the flavour of comedy that it cannot be shaken off entirely in a much darker second act in which the full consequences of Dorian’s callousness and depravity emerge. Often, this fusion of the amusing with the solemn results in something more akin to Victorian melodrama than to the sobering morality tale that, surely, Wilde intended.
There is much talk of Dorian’s “soul”, but Warren-Thomas’ one-note performance and several misjudgements of tone in the production leave us with too few glimpses of the inner man and no real sense of either his ecstasy or his despair. That said, even if we are not able to share in Dorian’s journey, at least we are taken for an enjoyable ride.
Runs until 13 February 2016 | Image:Emily Hyland