Oscar Wilde’s philosophical novel The Picture of Dorian Gray was heavily censored before its first publication in 1890 and even then it caused controversy, “violating the laws of public morality”. 120 years later, it serves as an apt reminder that vanity and the desire for everlasting youth are just as relevant today (albeit without such a public uproar as was back then). Incognito Theatre (born out of the Young Pleasance theatre programme) use their brand of physical expression to retell this scandalous story for a modern audience.
Staying true to the original, Dorian Gray tells of the eponymous character (George John) receiving a portrait that his friend and admirer Basil Hallward (Angus Doughty) was inspired to paint of him. Mutual friend Lord Henry Wotton (Charlie MacVicar) is more intrigued by Gray’s innocence and looks and desires to lead him astray, with soul-destroying consequences.
The play has been stylised well by director Anna Simpson – the characters not in the scene appear in picture frames and echo the conscience of the central character at the time. When trying to persuade Gray into following Henry to a party upon their initial meeting, the pictures are intense, filled with the promise of opulence and wealth; “All influence itself is immoral,” reflects Henry’s views on youth and power. MacVicar’s portrayal of Wotton is most powerful in this early scene; as Gray’s influence and vanity grow throughout the play all other characters become shells of their former selves by comparison. “The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one was once young” (as Henry so eruditely puts it), sums up how the others diminish in standing whilst Gray remains youthful and powerful. Of course Gray loses other parts of himself along the way and so metamorphoses in conjunction with the others.
Almost in counterbalance to MacVicar’s performance, Basil (Doughty) gives his best scene nearer the end of the production. In professing his affections and feelings to Gray, Doughty pours emotion into the part; filled with regret and anger at himself, he looks at the man his portrait has emulated and feels nothing but shame. As Gray himself, John gives a steady performance. The exchange with Sybil Vane (Joe Taylor) was suitably heartless and detached, but John should be more emotional when referring to the painting of himself – both his initial reaction to seeing the painting and his insistence that Basil cannot see the picture later on in the play are a touch bland.
The stylised simplicity of this production leaves the message clearly communicated with the audience, “Youth is the only thing worth having.” The intensity of the message is impressive in this group, but some of the subtleties of the characters could be refined to create a more sophisticated production.
Dorian Gray played Pleasance Dome (venue 23) as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. For more information, see the Fringe website.