Wednesday, April 8, 2015

'Dorian Gray' at the King's Head Theatre, 7th April 2015

From minute one Dorian Gray is at pains to expose its own artifice. Another Soup pride themselves on their use of 'Brechtian Immersion', drawing us into Wilde's luxuriously amoral fiction while constantly reminding us that we're watching a play. From the moment we enter we're hurried by the cast to find a place to sit, the space dotted with armchairs, comfy seats and steps. I end up sitting practically in the middle of the stage, resulting in the play becoming a minor act of contortion as I crane my neck to follow the cast as they swirl about me.

At a shade under 90 minutes the script takes extreme liberties with the source material, essentially condensing it down to a series of vignettes. So we see the angelic Dorian's (Samuel Woodham) introduction to polite society, during which he's hungrily eyed by the diabolical Lord Henry Wotton (Thomas Judd). With Wotton's clawed hand comfortably resting on his shoulder, Dorian's soul begins to rot. All too soon he's a hardcore aesthete, gazing at a portrait of himself and casually selling his soul on a wish to remain forever young.

As time ticks on Dorian's corruption becomes self-sustaining. In this condensed form the night descends into a whirlwind of fragmented sin. One minute he's callously leading his would-be fiancee towards suicide, the next he's half-hearted seducing and murdering people - flicking a knife between his victim's shoulderblades as casually as he might flick a mote of dust from his suit jacket.

Much of this is conveyed through some rather Sondheim-ish songs. With Felicity Sparks on piano (with violin accompaniment by Isaac Lusher), the jagged, lightly satirical lyrics paint a portrait of an cruel world where words are lethal weapons and reputation is everything. These lyrics are spiky and fun, the entire cast (but especially Judd) taking obvious pleasure in each mannered enunciation and rhyme.

Though it's a happy coincidence, the face that Dorian Gray shares a space with In Your Face Theatre's excellent Trainspotting ends up giving this adaptation a dab more relevance. At first glance, you'd expect the heroin squat marker pen knobs and exhortations to 'Listen to the KLF!' to mildly spoil the audience's immersion. In fact, in an appropriately Brechtian twist, the artifice reminds us that the amorality of Dorian Gray isn't a Victorian aberration, more part of a continuity of cruel decadence that extends to the modern day. In Thomas Judd's opening monologue we're lectured about vice, explaining that for all our modern MDMA and heroin, the Victorians did it first (and better). Both Trainspotting and Dorian Gray take vice's destructive effects as a starting point, each exploring the corruptive influences of solipsism.

Another Soup's adaptation is at pains to emphasise the class differences between Dorian, Wotton and the working class Londoners he exploits. Most moving is the plight of Felicity Kerwin's music hall star Sybil Vane, moving amongst the audience and distributed faded flowers. Entranced by her Prince Charming, she's used up and spat out, dying an ignominious, barely regarded death. Indeed, Dorian leaves a path of destruction in his wake, and who'd suspect a face like his?

Who indeed? Filtered through the beautiful yet sphinxlike face of Samuel Woodham, Dorian appears utterly bored with both virtue and sin, blankly staring at us with dead-eyed unenthusiasm. Given that Wilde's book can easily be enjoyed as a supernatural power fantasy that lets us imagine what we might do if we were given life both eternal and free of consequences, his joylessness is disarming. 

I think Another Soup are aiming to deconstruct the idea of Dorian as prototypical Nietzschean ubermensch, connecting his predatory urges to modern day upper class sociopathy. In the high collars, tailed jackets and smug smiles there's visual echoes of the famous Bullingdon Club photos of the current government, both they and Dorian preying on those lower down the social scale and never suffering the consequences. Making Dorian beautiful but genuinely unpleasant, the audience not even allowed the sop of vicarious pleasure in his crimes, distances us from him. The effect that we examine Wilde's story coldly and critically, resisting the urge to be seduced by the beauty and glitz.

Also, this is simply a damn fun way to spend 90 minutes. Rumbling along at whipcrack pace, we're tossed like a pinball between humour, melancholy and sexual kink. My only real criticism is the mystifying decision to have Dorian's portrait remain identical to when we first see it. The characters react to it with horror, as if it's changed beyond recognition - but it's exactly the same. Maybe there's some wider point being made here, but it feels a bit cheap to build up anticipation for no reason. Still, aside from that - good times.


Dorian Gray is at the King's Head Theatre until 12 April 2015. Tickets here.

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