Pictures of Dorian Gray
Oscar Wilde, newly adapted by Lucy Shaw
Jermyn Street Theatre In association with Stephen Joseph Theatre and Creation Theatre
Jermyn Street Theatre
Yes, you are right, Oscar Wilde’s own title is in the singular but at Jermyn Street Theatre (as at the Stephen Joseph theatre and Blackwell’s Oxford bookshop, where it is also playing) there are four different versions on offer that, while having the same text, vary the gender of the principal characters. This isn’t gender-blind casting but experiments with the effect of differing the gender relationships.
I saw the version in which the beautiful Dorian Gray and his corrupt mentor Henry Wooton are both female; painter Basil Hallward, whose portrait bears the marks of Dorian’s life while he (or in this case she) remains unblemished, stays male but Sybil Vane is now an actor, not an actress.
With the basic plot so well known from so many other adaptations (if not from reading the original novel), it is relatively easy to follow the storyline but Lucy Shaw’s adaptation seems more interested in atmosphere and Wilde’s words than in clear narrative. It lifts some dialogues straight from the book but often the actors deliver description while other characters prowl in the background or pose to suggest what is spoken.
As directed by Tom Littler, it becomes a montage of voices, sometimes given altered colour by what seemed to be multiple microphones hanging alongside light bulbs with glowing filaments, which designer William Reynolds provides as a firmament to act in, that are sometimes set swinging. We don’t see the titular portrait that records Dorian’s sins and excesses; it is represented (though I couldn’t properly see it from my seat) by a tray of water lit to suggests its corruption, though there are two huge mirrors, heavily clouded—are the audience invited to see their own sins there?
Emily Stuart’s costumes, black with the glitter of gold to suggest decadence, both aid transitions for those (all except Adrian) to play other roles and merge them as chorus as their voices become a kind of incantation.
Shaw makes a point of using Wilde’s rich (someone say overblown) language and there are repeated murmurs of Caliban as reminders of the worst side of our nature.
The only such reference in the book itself is when Gray goes to the theatre to see Sybil and is met by the oily theatre manager: “he felt as if he had come to look for Miranda and had been met by Caliban.” However, in his brief introduction to the full-length novel, Wilde wrote, in response to earlier attacks on the book, ”the nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.”
Augustina Seymour’s aristocratic Harry Wotton has a dazzling glamour that could well entrap a young woman but Helen Reuben’s Dorian looks far too controlled to be corrupted, she already has a face that can hide all its own secrets. Though I haven’t seen the other versions, Stanton Wright, who plays the male versions of Dorian, has the kind of cherubic good looks that call out for corruption; here they reflect painter Basil Hallward's innocence and infatuation with Dorian. Richard Keightley is the male Sybil; if he gets any chance to explain the effect Dorian has on him, ruining his life as an actor, I missed it. He has a much more explicit scene as the estranged friend Dorian calls in to remove all the evidence when he commits murder (a man with a past that Wilde leaves unexplained).
Playing different roles on different nights must be quite a challenge, but these performers work well together like a string quartet, their performances beautifully integrated, but this production intrigues rather than satisfies. In trying to reflect Wilder’s ideas of beauty, it seems all atmosphere but little emotion. The repetition of key words such as “Realism” and “Art” doesn't offer an argument or provide drama. Other versions may prove more satisfying but the problem I feel lies in the adaptation, which doesn’t succeed in its ambitious intentions.