We are back in Oxford and the theatregoers start looking for the first Playhouse must-see and we are in luck: an adaptation of Dorian Gray. Infamous, Sexy and written by a snappy-dressing Magdalen man. Problems? The novel has very little action in it adaptable for the stage. The focus is on personal conflict and influence. Despite this, it has been done (a lot): adapted, dramatized, filmed. Plays which are this quintessentially Oxonian also run the risk of being bit in the behind by the hype. That is quite a few obstacles from the start. But fret not. I am confident Dorian will live up to its impressive hype (and then some).
I am not very giving when it comes to dramatic adaptations of novels. But I was pleasantly surprised. The script is liberal with its citing of Wilde, but is organic enough to skirt around the feeling of quotation. The directing team of Lucie Dawkins and Adam Taylor has managed to apply an innovative feel of stylized and physical theatre to the classic tale that prevents over-familiarity and allows some of the internal conflict integral to the novel to be acted out. Choices such as making the portrait a separate character, running references to Shakespeare and the use of physical theatre for changes of scenery are my favourite stylistic flares. All will be helped by a clever three-tier, dark staging design. However, some aspects of interpretation such as displays of homosexual behaviour, though dramatically pleasing, may run the risk of losing the nuanced charm (and notoriety) that Wilde’s original depended upon. The book may be famous for it, but it never does name the love that dare not speak its name.
Jamie MacDonagh plays a captivating corrupted Dorian. His commitment to the character’s descent and gruelling drug-induced breakdown later in the play is impressively sensitive – shocking enough but not too manic. However, in the idyllic opening scene, and despite some romantic nuances with Lord Henry which were spot on, I felt that the potential for evil shone out too far from the off. I wanted to see a little more innocence to make the fall all the harder. Furthermore, seeing a more innocent Dorian might add further to Ziad Samaha’s compellingly sinful take on the portrait character. Jordan Waller gives the character of Lord Henry, the corrupting influence on Dorian, an effortless swagger that rightly just manages to ward off parody (even to the point of acknowledging the nudge towards seriousness in the character following the 18-year gap between Act One and Two). Henry Faber, too, shows deft interpretation playing Basil, the painter. Perhaps the hardest of the main characters to pitch, he gives Basil a warming mix of artistic flair and romantic awkwardness.
However, it is for the play’s thronged chorus that I reserve my heartiest congratulations. Masked and mutable, the chorus switch seamlessly between clever spectacles of physical theatre and moments of committed character acting. They come to represent the abstract blurring of real and Dorian’s imaginings that Dawkins and Taylor look for in their interpretation of the corruption. A harrowing scene where tea party meets a gory opium trip is a particular favourite and a testament to a thoroughly capable cast.
Dorian looks set to be a polished production by a confident cast. A few last-week-of-rehearsal kinks to sort out, but a press preview is never the ideal. Undeniably Dorian marks a strong start to the new year and for which it is well worth footing the Playhouse prices – this is decadence after all.
4 stars ****