Linnie Reedman’s reworking of Dorian Gray successfully blends engaging Vaudevillian twists with the fairytale, homiletic quality of Wilde’s beautiful children’s stories. This production thrives by combining engagement with Wilde’s literary output with simple yet powerful images: the withered blooms rustling over the characters’ heads for instance never let us forget what the fresh roses on Basil’s table and in Dorian’s hands will become.
Frustrated artist Basil (Antony Jardine), his idol Dorian (Jack Fox), and their worldly older friend Lord Henry (Joe Wredden) are not the most complex of characters, and Fox and Wredden especially do well in allowing their archetypal qualities to shine through. As well as looking heart-stoppingly like the real John Gray (the man who was partly Wilde’s inspiration for Dorian), Fox has great comic timing; as Dorian, his initial Sphinx-like elegance is instantly shattered when he opens his mouth to reveal himself to be just as vacuous as the plot demands.
When Wredden’s purring Lord Henry satanically crunches an apple before handing it to Dorian, the evocation of forbidden fruit and a fall from innocence is a high point of the scene rather than a stock ‘temptation’ image. Basil, however, seems to have rather untenable amounts of angst; never letting up in his edgy, plaintive pursuit of Dorian; more texture and complexity would have been welcome.
Many of Wilde’s characters (such as Lord Henry’s suffragette-daughter Emily, one of Dorian’s last love-interests) have been excised from this production. However, Reedman’s decision to make the tragedy of the actress Sibyl Vane (played by Daisy Bevan in her theatrical debut) the overarching theme of the play generally works well. The first victim of Dorian’s vanity, Sibyl kills herself when he seduces then cruelly rejects her. This enables Fox to show Dorian in a truly evil light, and to present his character as, though still superficial, a multifaceted surface that reflects many glimmering moods. Lord Henry’s wife Victoria (played by Shelley Lang here, and sidelined and derided in the original novel) is likewise allowed, in Reedman’s reworking, to come into her own as a protagonist in the opium-and-lesbianism party scene and a fascinated follower of Dorian’s descent into ruin. Lang and Wredden have a fantastic chemistry based on a mutual carelessness of convention, and, of course, an obsession with Dorian.
This stage production does not envisage Dorian’s corruption with the graphic brutality of – for instance – Oliver Parker’s 2009 film. Instead, it resorts to a dreamlike sequence, an opiate haze. And yet, the rawness of Dorian’s sorrow does not completely fade; perhaps the most moving scene in the play comes towards the end when Dorian and Henry cling to each other desperately, unable to let the other go yet unable to find any kind of solace in the embrace.
Perhaps another exigency of the theatrical setting, the fateful portrait is represented by a mere empty frame. This could be read as a comment on censorship (fitting in a play where names are at once extremely important and often jealously concealed), or on the connection between Dorian and Basil (as Basil paints, we see his rather than Dorian’s face through the frame). However, turning the eponymous portrait into an abstraction in this way does sit a little oddly in a play where virtue and vice are so tangible, and it seems absurd at some points when the actors congregate around this ‘picture’ to admire it.
Reedman’s text is a mash-up of snippets from the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, posies from Shakespeare, remarks drawn from Wilde’s critical prose, and a particularly apt quatrain from The Ballad of Reading Gaol. This is also a production that can have fun with Wilde. Vane’s mentor Mr Isaacs (played by Fenton Gray with great alertness) entertains the audience between scenes with the burlesque dancer ‘Lady Windermere and her fans’, whilst Isaacs himself looks for all the world like an ageing Oscar Wilde.
Bearing this in mind, at the end of the play, Wilde’s famous statement that he considers Dorian to be an ideal version of himself is evoked to great effect when we finally see the old man that his portrait has become.