Writer and Director: Ross Dinwiddy
Oscar Wilde’s supernatural story of morality and high society has been re-sketched and re-formed so often that novelty, if it comes, is a rarity.
By retaining only the core contours of the original story, adding updated focal points and characters and making some of the philosophy of the original a bit more accessible Ross Dinwiddy’s story is not just re-jigged but refreshed, interesting and has moments of genuine intensity.
Dinwiddy has transported the action from Victorian upper-class London to that of the sixties among the boho arty set. The beauty of young musician Dorian Gray, played by Maximus Polling, turns the worlds of Harry Wotton, Basil Hallward and Sibyl Vane upside-down, catalysing a tragic life for almost everyone who encounters the man. In Dinwiddy’s version, Vane and Gray are already married when we meet them at Hallward’s art show. Hallward’s obsession starts immediately, and he persuades Gray to sit for the infamous portrait. From here, we’re presented with a clear narrative of Gray being led down a path that indulges his narcissistic, addictive, selfish side (strongly influenced by Jordan Louis’ Harry Wotton as his greedy, spivvy new manager) to the detriment of all involved. The message comes strongly throughout that actions have consequences even if delayed, though there will always be a lucky few that take advantage and coast on the misery of others.
The rewrite gives us a chance to explore some of the more subtle themes of the original in a stronger way. While homosexuality was still illegal in the early sixties, there’s a palpable sense the tide was turning and these relationships were more openly accepted. Being able to clearly portray lust and obsession as drivers for these characters brings huge value. The openness leads to the strongest thread of the piece: the new innocence and power of Basil Hallward. Played by Christopher Sherwood he’s by far the most interesting character here, showing self-restraint, intelligence, vulnerability and compassion – a sweet evolution from Wilde’s version.
Another engaging highlight is the new character of Mavis the tabloid journalist, played with vim by Heather Alexander. It’s an entertaining addition, but feels tangential and inconsequential to the overall plot. Other characters don’t fare so well – feeling flat, sometimes plain wooden, and burdened with hefty amounts of talking without the wit and charisma that Wilde generally achieved. Gray’s nude scene feels gratuitous – seduction is clearly and effectively portrayed earlier in the action, complete with underwear.
Set in a black box with minimal props or accessories, the focus really is on the characters, exacerbating the need for the dialogue and portrayals to be top notch and highlighting where it falls down. The production is also accompanied by the most unfortunately loud smoke machine, which punctuates each scene change with a hiss that’s louder than most of the speaking and completely ruins the smooth shifting from one scene to another.
The overall feeling is that of smart ideas and intelligent interpretation and updating of the text being let down by over-written speeches and uninspiring performance. Questions of influence, self-determination, personal responsibility and manipulation are raised thoughtfully and gamely addressed but never quite satisfactorily. A mixed bag, but hopefully something that can be given an edit and returned to stages again as a smart piece of theatre.
Runs until 6 November 2021