The Picture of Dorian Gray is currently on at Richmond Theatre, adapted and directed by Sean Aydon and reviewed below by John O’Brien:-
Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900) wrote his only novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray” in 1891. It has been adapted for the stage by Sean Aydon who also directs the play. If like me, you enjoyed the wonderful BBC documentary about Oscar Wilde last Saturday “The Importance of Being Oscar” then this chance to catch up with more Wilde is most timely. Part psychological thriller, part social satire “The Picture of Dorian Gray” has all the hallmarks of classic Wilde. The witty dialogue interspersed with outrageous aphorisms, the back and forth battle between life and art, does art mirror life or does life imitate art? The contrast between marriage and freedom, conventional respectable society and the bohemian pursuit of hedonism. These are all familiar themes from Wilde’s plays. “The Picture of Dorian Gray” adds to this the post-Nietzschean “God is Dead” notion that there is no such thing as morality and that the individual should be free to do whatever he wishes. What are the consequences of such a view of life? This is the territory that “The Picture of Dorian Gray” explores.
Wilde came up with a fascinating metaphor to illustrate this philosophical question. What if a man could keep his good looks, remain for ever young and get away with behaving badly and in return the only cost would be that his portrait turns ugly. Art would pay the price for the living individual. This essentially is the plot of “The Picture of Dorian Gray”. The struggle between good and evil had been a central theme of religion. Heaven and Hell being the most obvious expression of this. Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus (1589) is perhaps the key influence on Wilde. The genius of Wilde is to internalise the conflict. It’s all taking place within the individual, not externally via God. This psychological turn was very characteristic of the late nineteenth century. Not just Nietzsche but also Robert Louis Stevenson in “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” (1886). Wilde doesn’t just internalise and psychologise the question, he also makes it centre on art. Art is now our touchstone not religion. So Dorian is not reading the bible but looking at paintings, plays and books. In a novel this works wonderfully well as we move between psychology, philosophy, satire and a gripping narrative. But the question is can it be translated onto the stage?
This is the challenge for Sean Aydon and his team. Have they succeeded? Yes and no. The trap to avoid is philosophising. Show don’t tell should be the watchword. Unfortunately there are scenes which do too much telling and not enough showing. A tighter show with perhaps twenty minutes cut out would give more pace and momentum to the show. The fact that the portrait gets uglier wasn’t made sufficiently clear. It was assumed rather than made explicit. Jonathan Wrather spoke so softly at times that it was difficult to hear what he was saying.
On the plus side Sarah Beaton’s set is superb. The door frame, centre stage is both a door frame and a frame for a work of art. The black void beyond the frame suggests the darkness into which Dorian is entering. There are some fine performances. Phoebe Pryce as Lady Victoria Wotton is wonderfully arch and supercilious. In a marvellous seduction scene on the chaise lounge Dorian asks if he may call her Victoria to which she replies coldly “no you may not”. Moving away as Dorian attempts to kiss her she gets up and informs him that she is going to change. Then just as we and Dorian think the moment has passed she turns and teases “… aren’t you coming”. Her husband, the aristocratic libertine Lord Henry Wotton is very well captured in Jonathan Wrather’s nuanced performance. Never without a cigarette or drink in his hand, Lord Henry, with swept back hair and silk neckerchief, is a monster of immoral selfishness. Jonathan Wrather’s performance brings out the Byronic “mad, bad and dangerous to know” qualities of someone like Lord Henry and how easy it is for him to captivate the young Dorian.
Gavin Fowler’s Dorian is compellingly good. He starts off as a young innocent, puppy like in his enthusiasms. He undergoes a transformation into a hedonistic spoilt brat under Lord Henry’s tutelage and then becomes a truly grotesque sadist in his last phase of Marquis De Sade like descent into the moral abyss.
On balance there is enough on offer here to justify a night in the company of Dorian Gray.