There are, as Shakespeare wasn’t afraid of pointing out time and again, limitations with live theatre staging. In Pictures of Dorian Gray, which doesn’t, essentially, deviate very much from Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, the one-act play ends abruptly, and the theatre audience doesn’t quite see what the book reader reads. For those who for whatever reason are unfamiliar with the story, Gray (Stanton Wright at this performance) is privileged enough to have his portrait done. He wishes that the portrait would age rather than his actual face, and the long and the short of it is that his wish is granted.
There are ways of portraying the different stages of the portrait’s appearance as the show progresses, including the use of projections and video technology. The focus here, however, is on the dialogue. There’s a mirror that Gray peers into occasionally, but the picture itself is never seen (well, it is, but only using CGI – collective group imagination). The plural in the play’s title comes from a squad rotation (if I may borrow a term from football) format: there are two actors who alternate the role of Dorian Gray (the other being Helen Reuben), and two that alternate the role of Henry Wotton (Richard Keightley and Augustina Seymour). Over the course of an eight-show week, there are two opportunities each to see Wright’s Gray and Keightley’s Wotton, Wright’s Gray and Seymour’s Wotton, Reuben’s Gray and Keightley’s Wotton, and Reuben’s Gray and Seymour’s Wotton. If that’s a tad confusing, there are pictures (geddit?) in the show’s programme to assist.
The stage itself is rather dark: black walls with white streaks make the lightbulbs dotted around shine even more brightly. The characters are largely dressed in black too – it’s not quite a ‘black box’ set but there isn’t much to distinguish between, say, Gray’s front room and a social event, save for the tone of the conversation and some excellent sound effects, the latter extending to an echo for certain characters at certain points. Wotton (Richard Keightley at this performance) came across as very philosophical, with a profound remark (or even several) in response to practically everything, including a bombshell confession from Gray.
The language of the play is often poetic and thoughtful, but this can go into overdrive, and because it proceeds at a reasonably brisk speed, I found myself still digesting one thought before two or three others are presented very shortly thereafter. Keeping up with it all was simply impossible, until it reached the point where the various threads and points being made might as well have been random phrases being spoken without context or deeper meaning. Oh, and why does Wotton keep saying ‘Caliban’ in a late scene? Is it a reference to the son of Sycorax in Shakespeare’s The Tempest? Can Gray be controlled only through magical powers?
In some scenes, there are lots of words and lots of movement, but one wonders: for what practical purpose is the stage being kept busy? It’s all very well having people walk around hastily as though inviting a comparison between the stage and Victoria Station, but where were these people going, and did it really matter? Despite these sorts of unresolved queries, this is an interesting take on a familiar narrative – as ever, one should be cautious of what one asks for, just in case one gets it.
Marks for versatility, then, with various actors taking on different characters on different nights, but there have been so many adaptations of this story already. This version, faithful to the original, isn’t exactly the edge-of-the-seat stuff it could have been. Perhaps a different performance with a different combination may have resulted in different conclusions. While there are some contemporary comparisons to be drawn – attempts at perfection through photographic manipulation, for instance – the production could have had more of a variation in pace to fully maintain interest throughout.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Pictures of Dorian Gray, Lucy Shaw’s groundbreaking adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Gothic parable, received its world premiere at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough this May before transferring to Jermyn Street Theatre in June. It plays there for five weeks before transferring to Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford, where it runs for a further three weeks in association with Creation Theatre.
In Oscar Wilde’s iconic novel, sophisticated, amoral aristocrat Henry Wotton seduces the beautiful Dorian Gray into a life of sin and hedonism in fin-de-siecle London. Dorian sells his soul for eternal youth and beauty – and only his portrait seems to age. But will Dorian’s pact have a price?
Mixing roles and gender, the production will see the actors switch parts for each performance, giving four different casting possibilities over the course of the run.
The PORTRAIT Season
JERMYN STREET THEATRE
In association with the Stephen Joseph Theatre and Creation Theatre
THE WORLD PREMIERE of
PICTURES OF DORIAN GRAY
By Oscar Wilde, newly adapted by Lucy Shaw
Jermyn Street Theatre, London: 5 June – 6 July