Jermyn Street Theatre, London ***
Box office: 0207-287-2875
Review: of performance seen June 10, 2019.
It was a bold idea on Tom Littler’s part to think of adapting Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray into a multi gender swapping stage production. Wilde’s persona and art was nothing if not multi-faceted, challenging gender orthodoxies of his time in almost all aspects. And respects! So, highly appropriate, and clever. Lucy Shaw’s new adaptation also adds a modernist conceptual structure to Wilde’s story of innocence corrupted – a running commentary that seems to act almost as a musical underscore to whatever action is going on before us, picking out and repeating certain phrases, motifs, and emphases.
The problem is, I wasn’t always clear as to exactly what the commentary was adding. Towards the end, it became a refrain, a rumble of sound repeating `art’, `art’, art – entirely in keeping, of course, with Wilde’s dedication to Art and Beauty as the highest forms of life.
Indeed, Littler’s production with Emily Stuart’s black velvet and brocaded costumes, echoing soundscape (Matt Eaton) and William Reynolds’ swaying light bulbs and shadowy atmospherics creates its own disturbing backdrop to Wilde’s themes of narcissism, irony, cynicism and very modish concept of self realisation – not being afraid to be truly oneself as Dorian Gray’s nemesis, Henry Wotton, observes.
Richard Keightley makes a very plausible debauched roué on this occasion, with his lizard eyes flicking sideways to entrap Stanton Wright’s young innocent but self-loving Dorian Gray, falling all too quickly under Wotton’s influence.
Influence and power. Again, very topical subjects! This is a story truly for our own times! And there is much here to intrigue – the sway of friendship, the intoxication of fashion, the lure of beauty.
A particularly potent, choreographed, scene highlights Dorian falling under the spell of the `Yellow Book’ – so popular and regarded as so shockingly decadent in Wilde’s time – leading Dorian into deeper self destruction.
All the same, I couldn’t help feeling an opportunity had been lost in the recreation of the fateful portrait itself which Littler and designer, William Reynolds represent as a large mirror with a pool of water – cool rather than disturbing.
When Dorian decides to make his Faustian pact of eternal youth in exchange for the portrait carrying his dissolute life, planks are used to cover the water which as the moment for Dorian to destroy himself moves to its climax are removed with a clatter and a bang – one of the production’s more dramatic moments.
Whether Littler’s production succeeds, however, in sufficiently recreating the decadence of the fin de siècle period is a moot point. His cast of four weave a spell not so much of magic as of intelligent simulacrum – artistically competent but without the sense of electricity that both frightens and excites, and especially where Wilde is concerned.
One outstanding feature, though, is Helen Reuben’s Basil Hallward, Dorian’s artist friend who paints the fated portrait. Reuben carries a bright, pert kind of self-awareness that can also produce genuine concern, an appealing set of talents. The fact that as a woman she’s called Basil matters not a jot. She convinces with her own persona.
In the next performances, interestingly, she’ll play Dorian Gray whilst Keightley takes on the female role of Sybil Vane, the young girl Dorian professes to fall passionately in love with but harshly repudiates leading to her suicide and his decline into conscienceless amorality.
Augustina Seymour, Sybil Vane at the performance I saw, conversely takes on Henry Wotton, a switching of roles and genders that will no doubt produce its own rewards. In all there are four combinations of casting, a challenge for any company.
Dorian’s rejection of Sybil Vane however remains one of the production’s most telling moments. Along with Henry Wotton’s string of elegant, slightly wicked, sometimes wise epigrams on human behaviour, it reflects Wilde’s own views on Art and Life – as if the aesthete were critically regarding his own vision and finding it unacceptable.
Dorian loved Sybil Vane when he confused her beauty with her Art as an actress; when she gives a bad performance, her beauty, to him, immediately disappears. So beauty and love and Art become inextricably and perilously entwined.
Overall then, a production of highs and lows. What it truly lacks is danger and that’s a fairly serious omission when contemplating Saint Oscar who ran the gamut of emotions and experiences, as we know to his own peril, but whose compassion was as large as his recklessness was fateful.
This play, by the way, is dedicated by Lucy Shaw to the memory of Stephen Jeffreys, the playwright who died last year. Jeffreys never lacked daring in his own writing and was an inspirational force and mentor to a whole new generation.
Pictures of Dorian Gray
By Oscar Wilde, adapted by Lucy Shaw
Dorian Gray: Stanton Wright
Basil Hallward, James Vane, Duchess of Monmouth: Helen Reuben
Henry Wotton, Mr Vane: Richard Keightley
Sybil Vane, Aly Campbell, Adriana Singleton: Augustina Seymour
Director: Tom Littler
Set & Lighting Designer: William Reynolds
Sound Designer: Matt Eaton
Costume Designer: Emily Stuart
Movement/Assistant Director: Julia Cave
Presented by Jermyn Street Theatre in association with the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough and Creation Theatre, Oxford.
First perf of this production of Portraits of Dorian Gray at Jermyn Street Theatre, London, June 5, 2019. Runs to July 6, 2019.
Review published on this site, June 11, 2019