Oscar Wilde’s provocative tale of the innocent Dorian Gray’s transformation from virtue into a life of hedonism is often retold on stage and is a wonderful play of vanity, sex and the complexity of the human struggle with morals and desire. It touches the sensitivity of immortality and how fragile life and appearance is, but also comments on our humanity and sexuality which was very ahead of its time when Wilde wrote it.
Dorian Gray is new to London and like an Adonis loved and admired by many. His artist friend Basil is painting his portrait, capturing his beauty, when Dorian is introduced to Henry Wotton, a lover of the hedonistic view of life with pleasures and adventures to be sought and morals to be neglected. When told his beauty will fade with time and that his portrait will always remain young and adored, Dorian secretly wishes to sell his soul in exchange for eternal beauty – a wish captured in his portrait that leads him down the path of destruction, sex, and moral damnation.
Wilde’s writing is clever, funny and sarcastic, always challenging the reader and pinching to awaken the critical mind. The Corruption of Dorian Gray at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre is very true to his writing and has kept its words’ beauty and finesse. The play’s journey from light innocence through to sexual awakening and destruction is clearly depicted and Michael Batten’s Dorian undergoes an impressive emotional change. He is the image of a tortured Adonis, narcissistic in his manipulation of people around him, and Will Harrison-Wallace’s Henry Wotton supports him solidly with the sweet and ill-fated Basil, played truthfully by Loz Keystone. The three create a strong lead but are supported by a cast who tend to overact instead of driving the plot smoothly.
There are some great details in the contrast of virtue and corruption, sex and purity, but some sexual scenes seem unnecessarily highlighted and one could have hoped a more artistically choreography could have explored the nature of Dorian Gray’s seduction rather than exhibiting it in bright lights. Some scene changes seem clumsy and it does feel like the play is trying to follow the film production of Dorian Gray down to the beat. Lasting about three hours it could do with a big cut, avoiding scenes to drag out and scene changes to run more smoothly. The production lacks a vision, a fresh take on Wilde’s brilliant work. The company works well with the limitations of the theatre, and some theatrical images really work, but as a whole it feels rushed, wanting too much and clinging on to details. Cutting it to the core and exploring a new artistic vision would have suited the production well and given it the fresh kick it needs – but the Lion and Unicorn’s artistic vibe is perfect for a fringe theatre in the summer and with some adjustments in direction and pace the play has potential.
The Corruption of Dorian Gray is playing at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre until 12 July. For more information and tickets, see the Lion and Unicorn Theatre website.