Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast (6-7 May); Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey (8 May); Riverside Theatre, Coleraine (9 May)
Adapted by Oscar Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland, along with producer John O’ Connor for European Arts Company, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ is an engrossing and compelling exploration of the darker side of human nature that feels as relevant now as it was upon publication of its source novel in 1891. In many respects, the content being performed on stage feels utterly, and disturbingly, timeless.
Painter Basil Hallward is seized by renewed inspiration for art and life by the subject of his latest painting, the young, handsome Dorian Gray. Introducing him to his friend Lord Henry Wotton, Hallward expresses misgivings that Wotton will lead the young aristocrat astray with his influence, knowing only too well the dangerous effect Henry’s charm can have. But even he cannot guess at the dark path Dorian is about to tread, as infatuation and flattery from others begins to go to his head, and he begins to contemplate what it would be like to stay young forever.
One of the most notable aspects of this play is the production value. For a small company and cast, EAC have staged an impressive piece of work, the use of lighting, smoke and sound effects all combining to give a real sense of the gothic, immersing us in a world somewhere between the believable and the supernatural, placing us in a sort of limbo state at times as Dorian’s soul begins to deteriorate in the wake of his increasingly wicked deeds. One highlight of the play is the sequence in which Gray visits an opium den, circled seductively by the proprietors as mist creeps through the theatre, the music swells ominously, and the entire scene is bathed in red, as though to hint at the character’s descent towards the demonic, while a sinister sound effect every time Dorian lifts the sheet to look at his portrait conjures a sense of deep unease, to the extent that my friend, accompanying me to the show, confessed to feeling uncomfortable every time the character approached the canvass again, knowing what would follow. As Dorian’s morality slips further and further away, especially towards the end of the second act, we hear snatches of voices, echoes that sound almost inhuman, animal-like, suggestive again of the demonic, particularly as characters speak of souls being sold to the devil. There are no jump-out-of-the-seat moments as such, but a definite, continual sense of unease pervades the whole show, and the atmosphere is all the richer for it.
Guy Warren-Thomas, as Dorian, contributes immensely to this. His Gray is superficially charming and attractive, but we are never far away from sensing the ugliness underneath, the cruelty and callousness waiting to bubble out. His demeanour, for instance, in the aforementioned opium scene, goes from foppish and giggly, to compelling and trance-like, to dark and murderous in the course of a single sequence. We are unsettled in this character’s presence, and it keeps us on our toes brilliantly. There is a wickedness in Warren-Thomas’ very eyes, a coldness and lack of caring for the devastation he leaves in his wake, that leaves him a horrifying, but gripping character to watch.
Lending excellent support are Gwynfor Jones as Wotton, Rupert Mason as Hallward, and Helen Keeley as early love interest Sybil Vane, all of them juggling other, more minor roles throughout the play. Mason, in particular, is fantastic value in this, moving seamlessly from the tortured, inadequate Basil, to Sybil’s slimy, monetarily opportunistic director Mr Isaacs, to her vengeful brother James with supreme ease. My clear highlight, and one I dearly wish there had been more of, was his take on the elderly Duchess of Harley, Mason imbuing the part with a sort of exaggerated neurosis, Maggie-Smith-in-Downton by way of Jim Henson, and obviously enjoying himself in that role more than any of the others. Helen Keeley is genuinely affecting as poor Sybil, her childlike innocence (the character is only 17) as she is romanced by Dorian giving way to confused heartbreak and devastation as he cruelly spurns her, and the last we see of her, lying sobbing on the floor, is probably one of the most poignant moments of theatre I’ve seen, all the more powerful for its brevity. Gwynfor Jones, meanwhile is great fun as the hedonistic Lord Henry, almost feeling like Wilde himself reincarnated at times, in everything from mannerisms to philosophy to droll wit, and we completely buy into his role as tempter, leading the young Dorian down an immoral path with almost no effort required. It’s only Rupert Mason, though, who really gets (or perhaps chooses) to sink his teeth into his other, smaller parts.
It’s interesting to have Wilde’s own grandson adapting the story, suggesting his choices and inclusions are as instinctively close to what the author might have approved of as anyone is likely to get. I once again refer to the opium den scene as a key highlight, its length more than justified as it explores Dorian from so many angles of his corrupt personality, while scenes of Sybil’s home life with her mother and brother, including a goodbye walk with the latter before he leaves for Australia, gives us the chance to get to know her more, lending her eventual fate greater power and sadness. All of Wilde’s trademark wit shines through in the script, with aspects of scenes that we physically cant’ see (such as Sybil and James spying Dorian passing from afar, or James’ accidental shooting in the far-off trees) effectively conjured through dialogue and performance. Peter Craze, meanwhile, as director, employs excellent use of mist and effects, effortlessly transporting us to fog-laden London streets and hazy dens of iniquity, and scenes are laid out and choreographed well. The extent to which the cast have to come onstage to move props around between scenes- the lighting levels such as to make it very visually obvious- may jar for some audiences in its frequency, but, speaking personally, I quickly became used to it. My one, very minor, quibble would be that I wish an easier, more seamless way could have been found for Guy Warren-Thomas to inhabit the parts of both Dorian and the painting, though the moments in which this is successfully executed are, in fairness, excellent, Warren-Thomas doing more to send shivers down the spine with a cruel sneer than any amount of horror makeup would.
‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ is, in this reviewer’s opinion, a slick, polished, well-acted production, seeped in gothic atmosphere, that remains a compelling and relevant story about temptation and vice, the danger of having no moral anchor, and the consequences of living only for pleasure and flattery. One wry line about the morality of stockbrokers reveals this to be wholly relatable to the here and now.