REVIEW: The Picture of Dorian Gray (Richmond Theatre) ★★★★

Tilted Wig Productions present a new take on Oscar Wilde’s infamous and only novel, currently touring the country.

We are first introduced to Dorian Gray, our orphaned anti-hero, via the characters of Basil Hallward and Lord Henry Wotton. Basil (Daniel Goode) is a skilled painter, currently subdued with the task of finishing a painting of a beautiful young muse who appears to have quite swept him away. Lord Henry (Jonathan Wrather) is bemused, questioning the power that this young man appears to hold over those who know of him. When Dorian (Gavin Fowler) finally enters he is exactly as the gossip foretold: beautiful, naive and impressionable. Henry wastes no time in sharing his world view with the young protegé, introducing Dorian to the concept of pleasure-seeking ‘New Hedonism’. Meanwhile, Basil finishes the painting and Dorian sees his true beauty. Inspired by Henry’s claims that youth is the only thing worth having, Dorian pledges a wish to remain ever young; however, this comes at a haunting price.

In a world now addicted to validation through social media likes and acknowledgement, Wilde’s story of narcissism, ego and aesthetic worth is more relevant than ever.

Henry holds a powerful influence over Dorian that threatens to poison his innocence from the first scene, and this is captured effectively in Wrather’s portrayal of Henry. His demeanour is commanding, his facial expressions captivating and his voice suitably playful, drawing the audience in to Henry’s enchanting ways. Goode was a gentle, earnest Basil, presenting the purest kind of passion of all the characters: for his art and for the good in others.

Unfortunately Dorian’s descent into darkness feels rushed, with little exploration of the reasons why he suddenly embarks on a life of hedonism. The change in his personality switches suddenly from one scene to the next, and whilst Fowler portrays this Jekyll-and-Hyde-approach to Dorian with great skill, it somewhat removes the valuable journey of his descent from the audience. Additional background into his transformation would have added further depth to the narrative, perhaps helping the audience to sympathise with Dorian on a much deeper level.

This was Wilde’s only novel, and its profound effect on the literary world is no doubt due to its enduring themes. Few texts remain as relevant in today’s society as they did upon first publication, but the demons that haunt Dorian are rife in our lives even now: an obsession with youthfulness, aesthetic validation and prolonging all roots of pleasure.

I commend Tilted Wig for converting two male characters into female parts, a helpful nod towards gender-balancing casts in older texts. The characters of Sybil’s older brother (now sister) and Campbell (male character, now female) were not vastly influential characters in the original plot, but portraying them as female does subvert Victorian gender stereotypes in two ways. Firstly, by suggesting that women can seek adventure abroad and seek revenge and feel aggression, like Sybil’s sister, and secondly by portraying a woman in a studious and academic role (Campbell), whose skills are indispensible to the male lead. Taking the opportunity to modernise classic texts not only injects fresh context to the story, but presents a theatre company’s willingness to move with cultural topics.

The set is simplistic yet haunting, comprising of three walls with a rough, almost mould-like effect to represent decayed decadence, comfortably mirroring Dorian’s soul. Each scene took part in the same setting, asking the audience to imagine a different location – Sybil’s dressing room, the morgue, etc. Although I understand the director’s desire to contain the action in one room, some subtle set changes may have made more of a striking visual impression.

Unfortunately, there appeared to be a noticeable problem with projection; the theatre is quite vast and sound did not carry well, causing anyone in rows J and backwards to strain their ears in order to hear the actors. The sound effects, however, were excellent: perfectly on cue, monstrously morbid and suitably ‘creepy’ – lighting was equally well done.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable adaptation of Wilde’s classic narrative. The most captivating elements of this story – its still timely themes of power, ego and aestheticism – are more relevant than ever. Wilde’s prose is gloriously decadent in the original text and has been transferred effectively to the stage, ensuring that each key conversation responsible for shaping Dorian’s downfall is explored at length. Stylish and full of substance.

Reviewed by Laura Evans
Photo: Craig Sugden


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