Saturday, August 9, 2014

'The Picture of John Gray' at the Old Red Lion Theatre, 8th August 2014

In C.J. Wilmann's The Picture of John Gray Oscar Wilde is the sun.  Shining high in the sky his presence illuminates every corner of this dramatic world.  Yet like the sun you can't look at him directly - Oscar Wilde is simply too big a force to be contained on stage.  What Wilmann shows us are the planets caught in his orbit, each reflecting individual facets of the great man.

Set in the dying years of the 19th century, we open in the pleasantly scruffy bohemian elegance of The Vale.  This is the home of Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon, two artists lodged within the firmament of Victorian gay culture.  The two men appear to able to happily live together as partners as long as they keep their sexuality under wraps, and have cultivated a close-knit social circle formed around a joint love of poetry, art and fine wine.  

The first scenes introduce us to their set, all of whom are erudite, well-dressed and with sharply refined tastes.  They are; John Gray, a charming would-be poet raised from the sticks; Andre Raffalovich, a very French arch critic and poet gourmand; and Bosie, Lord Alfred Douglas, extroverted and egotistically domineering.  As they recite poetry to each other the atmosphere becomes a cocktail of verbal jousting and one-upmanship.  We sense that places like The Vale are a sanctuary from a world of where a good reputation is everything, all governed by prudish morality - a place where visitors can drop their masks.

From L-R: Bosie (Tom Cox), Ricketts (Oliver Allan), Gray (Patrick Walshe McBride), Shannon (Jordan McCurrach) and Raffalovich (Christopher Tester)
The play gradually zeroes in on the relationship between Gray and Raffalovich, who, despite Gray initially insulting Raffalovich as an "ugly French Jew", quickly fall head over heels in love with one another.  It's this relationship that forms the bedrock of the play; which proceeds to sensitively explore same-sex relations through a number of different prisms: how it informs an artist's development, the attraction of Catholicism and what it means to live "the love that dare not speak its name".

Let's get two things out of the way, this is a tremendous bit of playwriting and a marvellous piece of theatre.  These are intensely clever characters seeking to one-up each other's displays of verbal gymnastics, so it's to Wilmann's enormous credit that never once does his script come across as trying to impress or worse, a caricature of what the 21st century imagines Wildean wit to be.  Lying underneath this blizzard of wordplay is a bedrock of carefully considered historical research and some snatches of carefully considered philosophy and the odd moment of honest-to-god actual profundity.

Particularly striking to me was a moment where John Gray, torn between his love for Raffalovich and his devotion to Catholicism, explains precisely why Christianity appeals to him.  He perceives life to be a series of unpredictable changes, and from his perspective he's entirely correct.  One minute he's the plain old son of a carpenter, the next he's in a relationship with Oscar Wilde, the next he's in Berlin with a gay lover.  With the ground unsteady beneath his feet he can at least rely on Christianity to remain static.  No matter whether he attends Mass in London, Rome or Berlin it will always be the same ceremony, no matter when or where he picks up The Bible it will always contain the same commandments and morality.

It's not exactly fashionable for a play to extol the virtues of Christianity, especially when you're exploring gay rights issues.  But Wilmann weaves the two together with surprising delicacy, showing us a life of priestly Catholicism as one of the few available Victorian avenues for two men to live together without suspicion of immorality or pressure of marriage.  Tossing a pinch of salt into the mix is the observation that a gay man who goes into the church is merely forsaking worship of another man for worship of an omniscient masculine deity.

Similarly interesting is the examination of how being gay in Victorian London influences artistic development.  Purely by virtue of their sexuality all the characters are outsiders, rebels against societal norms.  Wilmann subtly argues that it's this factor that enables them to produce such beautiful art; the poetry recited, the paintings breathlessly described and even the allusions to Wilde's work.  The beauty and demeanour of Gray is referred to as the inspiration for Dorian Gray and, in The Importance of Being Earnest, the characters present different personalities depending on their surroundings, mirroring the division between public and private life. The excellent stage design underlines these themes, the walls featuring a gently homoerotic painting of a man's jaw, pots of white paint dot the se and the floor itself is splashed with suggestively white liquid.

Material this good demands a worthy cast, and this doesn't disappoint.  Everybody is excellent in their roles, charging the dialogue with crackling, unrehearsed electricity.  With repartee this calculated and verbose there's a risk that it could come across as artificial, yet as we watch them react to each other it's as if we can see the cogs turning in the character's heads as they formulate their laser-precise responses.  The structure of the play means that fine though their performances are, Bosie, Ricketts and Shannon remain roughly constant for the entire run-time. Their circumstances change, by and large their personalities do not.

It's Gray and Raffalovich that really go through the wringer, their characters gradually evolving over the course of the evening.  Patrick Walshe McBride as Gray has the not inconsiderable task of conveying nervy, faintly shy talent masked by false confidence. There's moments where he purposely stumbles a little over his lines, reminding us that while the others are able to effortlessly dish out razor-keen conversation, he has to struggle to keep up.  As his spiritual, moral and emotional journey continues we're magnetically drawn to his struggle - taking the difficult dramatic struggle of making earnest faith attractive and succeeding brilliantly.

But it's Christopher Tester as Raffalovich that was my undisputed highlight.  It's difficult for me to pin down precisely what it is that I liked, but there's a core of humanity to the performance that straight up knocked my socks off.  Perhaps it's that in the opening scenes he seems invincible, the most verbally dexterous of all, followed by all this being gradually stripped away from him to reveal deep vulnerability and longing.  It's a powerhouse of a performance, and if you're going to see it I recommend sitting as close to the front as possible to get the full effect.

As a new play this is a huge success and I feel privileged to have seen it so early on.  I can't imagine that it anyone seeing it won't enjoy it, especially not anyone with the remotest interest in Oscar Wilde who, even as an off stage presence influences everything we see. Simply put, this is a wonderful bit of theatre that deserves a wide audience.

The Picture of John Gray is at the Old Red Lion Theatre, Angel until the 30th of August. Tickets available here.

All photographs by Miriam Mahony

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