The Picture of Dorian Gray – St James Theatre Studio
On June 20th 2015 it will be exactly 125 years since “The Picture of Dorian Gray” was published. The European Arts Company celebrates the anniversary with a stage tour of Merlin Holland’s (Wilde’s grandson!) and John O’Connor’s adaptation of the novel.
In Victorian London, Basil Hallward completes his Magnum Opus: the portrait of Dorian Gray, a young nobleman whose beauty is worshipped by many. Bewitched by both the excellence of the painting and the sharp-witted wisdoms about youth of Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian swears to give his soul for the painting to age instead of him. Soon he realises his wish has been granted, and as the painting bears the marks of his sins, he spirals down into an abyss of decadence, intrigues, affairs and crime.
Most notable are the wonderful set design of empty frames by Dora Schweitzer and the atmospheric sound design by Matt Eaton. Recordings of the actors’ voices reproduce eerie echoes, demonic chants or busy streets.
The atmosphere and pacing of the dialogues become significantly more appropriate during the second half of the play when it drifts onto darker matters. Unfortunately the first part of the play feels like a schoolboy joke, with Rupert Mason often dressing up as elderly woman. In these instances his costumes are bad on purpose – loose strings dangle from his head as “wig”. Similarly, Helen Keeley plays her Sybil Vane with an exaggerated high-pitched voice that is straining both on ears and nerves. These supposed “drawing room comedy” elements destroy the tragic tone of the novel entirely, and completely deflate the emotional abuse of Sybil. Her character becomes a laughing stock, and the underplayed violence against women is uncomfortable at best. Guy Warren-Thomas likens his Dorian to Keeley’s performance, bumbling along the stage during the first half until his character development sets in. Somewhere in the background of all scenes, Gwynfor Jones tries so hard to imitate Oscar Wilde in gestures and campness that his lines lack any conviction, and seems more at ease in his other roles. Impressively transformative Rupert Mason changes even the expression in his eyes between roles, but fails to convincingly worship and love Dorian as Basil.
The production could have been a great deal better if the European Arts Company had greater faith in their source material, rather than provoking the cheapest of laughs. A work of Wilde does not need to be instilled with lowbrow humour to appeal – his words are already the height of comedy, and produce comic relief exactly when appropriate. It is left to wonder why Peter Craze felt he had to direct his actors to undermine all emotional weight of the material.
The style of the performance can be best summarised by the fact that Warren-Thomas would stand inside of an empty picture frame doing grimaces to indicate the ugly changes of the painting. “The Picture of Dorian Gray” is a performance of a tragedy cheating its audience of their catharsis.
Reviewed by Lisa Theresa Downey-Dent
Photo: Evolution Photos