The Picture of Dorian Gray is a compelling adaptation which engages the audience with an excellent cast and a haunting score.
The play follows the beautiful Dorian Gray’s life which is changed one afternoon at the artist Basil Harwood’s studio. Lord Henry Wotton, a society dandy, convinces him to indulge in pleasure at any cost, and Dorian promises anything for the chance to remain as young and beautiful as he will always be in Basil’s portrait. From that day, Dorian’s excesses affect only his portrait, leaving him untouched.
Oscar Wilde’s novel is tricky to adapt on many levels. Wilde’s narrative voice does not easily translate to the stage; characters who are developed in the book risk becoming caricatures. The endless imagery of flowers in bloom and death, the overpowering scent of lilacs which seems to waft off the page, cannot transfer to the black box of the Michael Pilch studio. However, this production addresses these problems by creating an intimate drama with three solid, if slightly uneven, central performances.
Oscar Wilde’s novel is tricky to adapt on many levels.
Tedious, dowdy Basil (Chloe Taylor) ‘puts everything that is charming into his work’ and consequently has no charm left as a person. He is constantly in motion, strung up by the shoulders, anxious and in love with his beautiful friend Dorian. Taylor’s performance remains in this agitated mode for much of the production, but she imbues the character with real emotional weight in quieter moments; Basil’s declaration of his affection for Dorian is poignant and touching.
Lord Henry Wotton (Carolina Earle) is Basil’s opposite, a man who wears his immorality on his sleeve and seemingly never had a heart. Wotton is always cigar in hand, lip curled, commenting on the nature of women and the perfection of beauty. Earle’s performance is initially a little affected – the society accent meaning a few lines are thrown away – and the script does not emphasise Wotton’s transformative speech on hedonism and pleasure enough. In the second act, though, Earle deftly shows Wotton’s anxiety in his more advanced age. His charm is now brittle where before it was easy and seductive. Earle delivers the line ‘it is a charming afternoon and we must end it charmingly’ with a hint of desperation, fitting for a character who at once envies and loves the untouchable charm of Dorian Gray, whilst visibly decaying themselves.
Keller’s performance emphasises that this journey of moral corruption is not limited to the extraordinary.
However, it is Thea Keller’s excellent turn as Dorian which truly brings this production together. Dorian is, to begin with, unknowingly beautiful, a boy who is entranced by Wotton’s knowing witticisms. We are reminded throughout the play that Dorian is a youth, who becomes a man in front of our eyes; he still has guardians, and Keller spends much of the first act with his hands in his pockets. This emphasis on his youth effectively translates why Dorian is beautiful to the jaded Wotton and poor Basil – because, as Wilde writes, ‘All the candour of youth was there, as well as all youth’s passionate purity. One felt that he had kept himself unspotted from the world’. Instead of an otherworldly Dorian Gray, Keller presents a startlingly pure and youthful Dorian, who bewitches and is bewitched in equal measure. Dorian is wrenched between flights of debauched cruelty, and attempts at redemption; he despairs, saying, ‘I want to be good. I can’t bear the idea of my soul being hideous.’ The chamber-drama nature of the Pilch suggests that Dorian is constantly choosing between Wotton’s attractive immorality and Basil’s innate, boring goodness. Dorian is of an ordinary beauty, but his obsession with his youth and looks corrupts him. Keller’s performance emphasises that this journey of moral corruption is not limited to the extraordinary.
The production succeeds on the merit of these performances, using gender-blind casting to good, although not revolutionary effect. Equally, the two-way mirror which serves as the changing portrait generally conveys the strangeness of this phenomenon well, but does not offer much beyond being a technical trick. The original score by Nathan Fletcher, however, is genuinely moving throughout, the string quartet heightening a death scene with particular success.
Oscar Wilde’s novel is bitingly funny and emotionally captivating. It is asking too much to see all the brilliance of his work on the small Pilch stage, but The Picture of Dorian Gray captures much of its magic: there is indeed ‘something fascinating in this son of love and death’, Dorian Gray.
The Picture of Dorian Gray will be performed at 7:30pm in the Michael Pilch Studio until the 6th of May.