Review: ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’

The Picture of Dorian Gray has hardly been short of adaptations. Oscar Wilde’s only novel, first published in 1890 with significant deletions on account of being considered “indecent”, has since been transformed into films, musicals, plays, audio books, and provided the inspiration for various other forms of fiction, including graphic novels and erotica. St Hilda’s College Drama Society is the latest company to put Dorian on to the stage, in a production currently running at the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building. The immediate problem for dramatic adaptations of this book is that so much of the novel’s brilliance is in the style of its prose, not just in its characters and plot. In this respect, their new script fared relatively well, using original dialogue from the novel to capture much of Wilde’s wit and lightness of touch. The rest of the production, however, did not make the most of the drama’s subtleties. Although there were strong individual performances, this adaptation seemed to be outstripped by the brilliance of the text.

I felt that the majority of the production’s problems stemmed from its lack of commitment to any one particular aesthetic. The auditorium was left sparsely decorated, with the bare brick walls exposed under the glare of the house lights. This set the stage, quite literally, for a bare-bones, contemporary interpretation of the play. The costumes and props, however, remained firmly in the nineteenth century, but lacking the support of a grand period set. This was no doubt in part due, understandably, to financial constraint — period drama is costly, and well beyond the funding of most student drama. But a wholesale transplantation into the twenty-first century to accommodate this might have worked better than the resulting clash in aesthetic here, which left the drama playing out in a liminal chronological and conceptual space.

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Jack Doyle as Dorian Gray

Nonetheless, there were wonderful performances from Jack Doyle as Dorian, Callum Luckett as Basil, and Andrew Crump in a far too fleeting appearance as Alan Campbell. The duologues between these characters were easily the strongest of the play, with Doyle managing to tread the line between naivety and manipulation that makes Dorian’s character so compelling. It was a bold and innovative choice to cast a woman as the misogynistic Henry Wotton: Wilde once acerbically noted that Henry was ‘what the world thinks of me’, granting him lines such as ‘Women are a decorative sex’. When such disparaging reductions are uttered by their subjects, they are immediately placed under scrutiny, transformed from flippant comments into something altogether more sinister and worth challenging. The interplay between genders quietly underpins the relationships in Dorian Gray — the only woman who emerges unscathed from the entire scenario is Henry’s wife, who remains out of sight and mind for the majority of the novel, eventually divorcing him. And at least half of Dorian’s charms stem from his androgynous appearance and characteristics. So a gender-blind casting was in principle an excellent idea to foreground these explorations around gender roles. Unfortunately, however, Charlotte Pawley’s performance left me unconvinced that this Henry was capable of leading Dorian down a path of decadent self-destruction.

There were moments that  threw new light on to the events of the novel: in particular, Sybil’s fated appearance in Romeo and Juliet immediately became a play within a play, resulting in a beautiful piece of meta-theatre. The seated audience became the ‘common people’ that Dorian refers to, making them somehow complicit in causing Sybil’s death. Ultimately though, there was just a bit too much missing from this adaptation for it to fully develop the dramatic promise of Wilde’s text.

Leah Broad

More information about St Hilda’s College Drama Society can be found on their Facebook page.

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