To today’s liberal, British audience, the notion of being censored and jailed for writing a hedonistic and homoerotic text is an alien concept. However in 1891, when Oscar Wilde published his first and only novel – The Picture of Dorian Gray – he became the centre of a scandal that claimed his writing was violating the morality of Victorian Britain: an accusation that later contributed to his arrest and imprisonment. It’s therefore gratifying that Wilde’s grandson, Merlin Holland, teamed up with John O’Connor of the European Arts Company to write a new adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, re-filling it with all the previously censored snippets. Their production, staged at Trafalgar Studios, marks the 125th anniversary of Wilde’s “poisonous” novel being published.
In an adaptation that sticks loyally to Wilde’s novel, we first see the handsome Dorian Gray (Guy Warren-Thomas) through the eyes of his besotted painter Basil Hallward (Rupert Mason). Then Basil’s friend Harry (John Gorick), known formally as Lord Henry Wotton, meets the young Dorian and captivates him with words the way Basil has failed to flatter him with art. It’s through Harry opening Dorian’s eyes to the theatre, amongst other things, that he falls for the sweet but simple actress Sybil Vane (Helen Keeley), who he later learns he can only love when she’s on stage and “all the heroines combined”. On the nullification of his engagement with Sybil, Dorian begins his demise into the world of immorality, indulgence and hedonism.
The underlying theme, or obsession, in Wilde’s story is the desire to preserve youth. Whilst the Duchess makes a wistful plea – “I wish you’d tell me how to be young again” – Harry proclaims that “youth is the only thing worth having” and Basil paints Dorian to forever capture him in his youth. It’s through Basil’s painting of Dorian that Wilde breathes magical realism into his plot, fulfilling his desire to add more imagination into fiction and break away from the straight-up realism he saw dominating other literary works of his day. Basil’s enchanted painting, represented in an empty frame, remains poignantly on stage throughout the show, its subject growing eerily older whilst the living Dorian Gray remains young.
The intimacy of the studio space brings us closer to the story and Dora Schweitzer’s stylishly minimal set fills the stage suitably. A sparse scattering of late nineteenth-century furniture remains fittingly on stage throughout the show, whilst the paintbrushes artfully propped on a chair in Basil’s studio are smoothly swapped for garnishes of tapestry as we move to scenes in the Duchess’s parlour. Anett Black’s costumes – tweed suits, richly coloured bowties, feathered bonnets and paint overalls for Basil – are sleek and trendy in their design. Matt Eaton’s compositions of fairytale twinkles and shimmering chimes suit the magical backdrop of the story perfectly, and whilst I’m always in favour of live music in theatre, given the rarity of musical interludes in this production the recordings do the job fine. Duncan Hands’s lighting is also notable, silently plucking characters from one room of Dorian’s house and plopping them into the next during seamless blackouts.
All four actors are captivating in their respective performances: Mason for his heart-breaking fragility and troubled, longing gazes at Dorian; Warren-Thomas for his naturalistic progression from narcissistic but charming youth to corrupted, sinister villain; Keeley for adapting effortlessly to her vast range of characters; and Gorick for his authentic portrayal of the opinionated, aristocratic Harry.
As a play, The Picture of Dorian Gray has a hefty plot to plough through in just over two hours, particularly in the second half, which moves a bit giddily from drama to drama. Holland and O’Connor’s script is also weighty, undoubtedly in their efforts to pay homage to Wilde’s own text. However, in Wilde’s own words, “there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”, and this enthralling adaptation with its sexual innuendos, plentiful gags and humorous cross-dressing should keep audiences buzzing with things to say.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is playing at Trafalgar Studios until 13 February. For more information and tickets, see the ATG theatre website. Photo: Emily Hyland