‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ (Bedlam: 26 – 29 March ’14)

Dorian Gray

Wil Fairhead as Dorian Gray. Photo. Paul Alistair Collins

“The contrast between Gray and his aging associates was very well handled and provided the actors with opportunities to show off their powers of reaction, in which they all excelled.”

Editorial Rating: Unrated

I’ve been told to stop sending hectoring emails to the producers of Epic Rap Battles of History. Apparently they aren’t going to be pitting Dorian Gray against Doctor Faustus in the present series, and that’s an end of it. It’s too epic for EpicLLOYD and Nice Peter isn’t so nice when cease and desist letters start flying around. If the line, “you’re a puny little dandy, as weak as lager shandy” doesn’t clinch the deal, it seems nothing will.

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is the story of a handsome fellow who sells his soul for the outward appearance of eternal youth. Under the mephistophelian tutelage of his friend Lord Henry, Gray shuns the simple life betraying the trust of those he befriends. After breaking the heart of his first love, Sybil, a beautiful young actress, Gray realises that while he never ages, his sins are being scored upon a portrait painted in his prime.

Published in 1890, Wilde’s only novel courted controversy like a magnet attracts filings. It is arguably his most important work, the one in which his gorgeous worldview is most cunningly elaborated. Adapting The Picture for the stage might be considered an impious undertaking – certainly the path to hell is paved with unsold copies of Oliver Parker’s 2009 film version.

Neil Bartlett’s adaptation is more faithful to Wilde’s original, but the perfect proportioning of gothic subtlety is lost. For all its larger failings, what annoys me most about the script is that Sybil, performing in Romeo and Juliet, is called to the stage for beginners’ positions even though she won’t appear until scene 3. Wilde did details like Ozwald Boateng does, if you’re going to muck around with him do it right.

Jonathan Ip, as Lord Henry, has the fuzziest end of the lollipop. Huge chunks of semidigested monologue blocked his route through the first couple of scenes – a grueling marathon run with hurdles. Under the sheer weight of words, Ip’s delivery of Wildean wit is muted, and about as jolly as Reading Gaol on a rainy day.

Together with Wil Fairhead in the title role, Ip took to hiding behind his props. The obsessive smoking of e-cigarettes, as well as the constant imbibing from tumblers of neat spirits, suggested that the lads were finding it all a bit much. It’s a wonder director Kirstyn Petras hasn’t got them attending an AA meeting or two.

Fairhead was a strong lead, though noticeably better playing the bastard than the boy. The contrast between Gray and his aging associates was very well handled and provided the actors with opportunities to show off their powers of reaction, in which they all excelled. Both Ip and Dean Joffe (as Basil Hallward) found themselves in their characters’ older selves.

The overall set design was smart, and would have suited a tighter script. It is impossible for a production to stay pacy when it has so many scene changes, necessitating the movement of masses of trinket bedecked and bulky furniture – dropping a hand mirror on stage must bring seriously bad luck.

A platform at the back, with attractive gold detailing, provided Gray with an attic in which to conceal his shame, and the bulky furniture with a place come and go from. To the sides were galleries for the supporting cast who were excellent throughout. Some very strong performances were on show demonstrating that those crowding the wings were not just clothes hangers for Sophie Guise’s superbly tailored costumes. It’s nice to see someone who knows the difference between morning and evening wear, even if Ip’s waistcoat stuck out from the latter. Also, giving the ladies slippers might have reduced the noise of the perpetual scene changes.

With so much participation from the team behind In The Heights, Edinburgh University Footlights’ outstanding recent outing, this production pulled one rabbit from the battered top hat. Jimi Mitchell’s dance routine was spectacular. It was what the cast had been waiting for. Perhaps it was a little too interwar but it showed what the players were capable of when freed from the confines of the script.

This was a production posing more questions than it provided answers. Why did the script refer to the portrait’s golden curls when Fairhead is dark haired? Why was the portrait shown at all when there was no picture, just a black canvas? Wouldn’t reactions to the unseen have been more effective? When you’ve got Benjamin Aluwihare and Jordan Roberts-Lavery in a cast, why wouldn’t you put them front and centre? How many butlers and valets were there? Was it strictly necessary to employ the entire membership of the Junior Ganymede Club?

I would have preferred to see this capable cast and crew tackling an actual Oscar Wilde play, rather than an inadequate adaptation of the great man’s only novel. Not only would there have been more scope for the actresses but the men could have enjoyed playing rallies of banter against one another. Instead they were stuck struggling with a script as stiff as the day old corpse of a portrait artist being carried down from an attic.

Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 28 March)

Visit The Picture of Dorian Gray‘s homepage here.