Writer: C.J. Wilmann
Director: Gus Miller
Designer: Rosanna Vize
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Is an author’s interest in you a blessing or a curse? Do those who are immortalised in fiction find it more difficult to live a normal and discreet life than their counterpart on the page, or will they always wish to throw-off the comparison with their literary other? This new production at the Old Red Lion Theatre considers these questions using the example of Oscar Wilde’s muse for his only novel– the poet John Gray.
Shortly after the book’s publication, The Picture of John Gray opens at the home of lovers Charles Shannon and Charles Ricketts who are hosting an artistic soiree for Wilde and his circle. Into this mix comes John Gray, recently replaced in Wilde’s affections by Lord Alfred Douglas (‘Bosie’) who also appears, and the French critic Andre Raffalovich who overcome their artistic differences to form a life long bond. Through this collection of young men, this play uses the actions, humiliation and death of Oscar Wilde as marker points to examine the consequential effect this had on his friends and their ability to publicly conceal their sexuality.
On the whole this is quite a well written piece of theatre with plenty of comic touches, and Wilmann has clearly immersed himself in the detail of this period, both in terms of the characters involve, all of whom emerge fully-formed, and the nature of society at the time. Its theme had tones of John Logan’s affecting Peter and Alice performed in the West End last year, and although this production is largely a narrative retelling of Gray’s life, it does hint at his wish to avoid becoming Dorian. Although the individual scenes are compelling, perhaps a touch more realised debate on the baggage a fictional self creates and how this can affect someone’s future would lift this from an interesting to a more profound work.
The acting is of a high standard across the board. Patrick Walshe McBride’s is a gentle and suitably poetic John Gray, who through his affair with Raffalovich grows in confidence before turning to Catholicism and abstention. The scenes with Christopher Tester, an excellent and touching turn as Raffalovich, are gripping and believable as the two men turn their love into a supportive and chaste friendship. Tom Cox has lots of fun as an overbearing and arrogant Bosie who comes to scoff at Gray’s poetry and crow over his rival for Wilde’s affections. He is also an interesting counterpoint to the other characters by not attempting to hide his sexuality but brazenly flaunting it in the hope the world will change around him. More grounded are Oliver Allan’s Charles Ricketts and Jordan McCurrach’s Charles Shannon the ‘old married couple’ of the play who bicker sweetly but remain ever-aware that hiding their relationship is the only safe option. They all suffer by association with Wilde, but Ricketts acutely observes that perhaps one day their knowing him may be a benefit.
Wilmann’s decision not to have Wilde appear is an excellent one, and re-emphasises that this story is from the perspective of those that suffered reputational harm from his arrest. Often presentations of Wilde are caricatured and would have upset the tone, but of course his presence is felt throughout in reported speech and the effects portrayed. This production gives an interesting insight into what it meant to be associated with Wilde at the time of his imprisonment and subsequent death, while shedding a more truthful light on the man who will forever be remember as Dorian Gray.
Runs Until: 30 August 2014| Photo: Miriam Mahony