THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY
Festival Theatre, Malvern, Saturday 11th May, 2019
Tilted Wig Productions bring this new adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s only novel to the stage, courtesy of Sean Aydon, who also directs. It’s a stylish affair, with a set by Sarah Beaton that suggests Victorian grandeur left to rot. Beauty in decay is an emblem throughout this tale of handsome young Dorian who, wishing to retain the beauty captured in his portrait, makes a wish… As time goes by, it is the painting that shows signs of age, cruelty and dissipation, while the subject himself is unchanged. Dorian takes to covering his painting, only to display ‘poor traits’ in his conduct.
Gavin Fowler begins as a sweet, appealing Dorian, subtly hardening his characterisation as his hedonistic pursuits increase his sociopathy. Dorian models himself on his friend, Lord Henry Wotton, played by Jonathan Wrather (evil Pierce off of Emmerdale). Wrather is marvellous in the role, lazily debonair and louche, the aphorisms dripping from his lips. Aydon’s script fizzes with Wildean wit, and Wrather has the perfect delivery. In contrast is Daniel Goode as Basil the artist. Here Aydon brings Wilde’s homoerotic undertones closer to the surface, although nothing is explicit.
Kate Dobson is a lively Sybil Vane, the actress who captures Dorian’s fancy, and she shares a funny scene with Samuel Townsend’s Romeo, where Sybil misses her cues. I adored Phoebe Pryce’s pragmatic Lady Victoria Wotton, inured to her wayward husband’s shenanigans. Adele James makes a strong impression as Ellen Campbell, ensnared in Dorian’s web.
Beneath the humour and the urbane epigrams, there is an undercurrent of dread and foreboding, accentuated by Jon McLeod’s music and sound design. The peeling walls and general dinginess aid the idea that beauty is transient and decay is inevitable. As they seek pleasure in whatever form, the characters are overshadowed by impending mortality. For a story that concerns the passage of time, this production is curiously timeless in his setting: there are nods to the story’s Victorian origins, in the costumes, but then there are also dresses and slacks that are out of period, and Basil’s plastic bottles of white spirit, let alone the polythene sheet Dorian makes use of, American Psycho style. Some of these anachronisms jar, others seem to fit, but nothing dilutes the overall tone of the production.
Dorian’s decadence is stylised, with choreography by Jo Meredith and a few masks and electropop beats. It’s all rather classy so when a murder happens, it’s all the more visceral.
All in all, it’s a gripping version, although I did find it slows a little as it heads towards the climax. A little more intensity in those final encounters would not go amiss. I love the way the dreaded painting was handled. Like Wilde, Aydon leaves it to our imaginations, and imagined horrors and imagined depravities are invariably more effective than depicted ones.