Dorian Gray

Leicester Square Theatre, 9 January – 1 February 2009

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is a short and very enjoyable book; Ruby in the Dust have adapted it into a frustrating and interminable piece of theatre.

Wilde is rightly still admired for his wit, but in adapting the novel writer and director Linnie Reedman has allowed admiration to override common sense. Hardly a line of Wilde’s dialogue has been cut, hardly a scene omitted. Due reverence to the source material is one thing; copy-pasting an entire novel, however short, onto the stage is taking it too far.

The few cuts Reedman does make are those dictated by the size of her ensemble, but even in these situations she ties herself in knots trying to hang on to as much of Wilde’s dialogue as possible.

For instance, no one is available to play the mother of Sybil Vane, the young actress that captures Dorian Gray’s heart, so to retain the mother-daughter conversation Sybil (Joanna Hickman) gets a scene with her manager Mr Isaacs (James Lloyd Pegg) instead. But Pegg is doubling as Sybil’s brother James, so the siblings’ following conversation – which has much more bearing on the plot – has to be transplanted into a letter, which demands that Sybil infodump James’ backstory to Mr Isaacs.

Confoundingly, Reedman even adds her own subplots, expanding the backstory of an opium den prostitute to a ten-minute monologue and having Dorian ‘groom’ his young valet, Leaf (whom Dorian remarks looks strikingly like his fiancée Sybil, in case the audience don’t understand doubling up).

The Leaf subplot is part of an effort to update Wilde’s novel by making explicit some of the excesses to which Wilde only alludes. This is a fair goal: laws and attitudes of the time prevented Wilde from explicitly mentioning homosexuality and thankfully today’s society is more accepting. But the result is a scattershot attempt at sexing up the material; an unexpected gay kiss here, young Leaf going down obligingly on his knees there.

Mostyn James gives an unconventional interpretation of Dorian, the beautiful young man whose rash prayer allows him to remain young and unsullied while his portrait ages and bears the marks of his moral decline.

James’s Dorian is a sneering public-school boy. He’s entitled by his wealth and he knows it. The arrogance, not the innocence, of youth is the focus of his performance; his position and his good looks give him natural advantages of which he is well aware and makes full use.

While this is probably a more honest portrayal of a young man with Dorian’s gifts than Wilde’s character, it is also a more pessimistic and less sympathetic one. The novel is a redemption fable; James’s Dorian is an irredeemable cad.

J. William Davis’s design is almost faultless, the disadvantage of this being that it raises expectations the adaptation cannot meet.

The Leicester Square Theatre’s Basement is now a Victorian gentlemen’s club, with the audience seated round candlelit café tables. Dorian’s quest to satiate his senses is echoed by a design that touches every sense: there is smooth velvet everywhere, a pianist plays lounge music, entertainers in half-masks offer satsumas and ginger beer and on the piano, a stick of incense burns.

The intimate atmosphere – plus readily available lubrication from the bar – does its job admirably, relaxing the audience into a content and receptive mood – which, of course, the play then proceeds to erode.

The only design flaw is in the representation of the portrait itself, the bête noir of anyone adaptating Wilde’s novel. For much of the play it’s hidden offstage, which forces the actors to admire it while standing in a poorly lit doorway, through which a lift shaft is clearly visible.

The whole production appears to have been prepared with the best of intentions and a genuine love for Wilde’s work. Unfortunately good intentions don’t always make good theatre, and Dorian Gray is, like its protagonist, beautiful only at first glance.

Written by Linnie Reedman after Oscar Wilde

Crew includes Linnie Reedman (director) and J. William Davis (designer)

Cast includes Robert Donnelly (Basil Hallward), Joanna Hickman (Sybil Vane), Mostyn James (Dorian Gray) and Vincent Manna (Lord Henry Wotton)

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