Thursday, January 21, 2016

'The Picture of Dorian Gray' at Trafalgar Studios, 20th January 2016

Casting Dorian Gray is tricky. The story hinges on his unquestionable beauty, repeatedly described in rapturous terms by the other characters. How do you find someone to live up to that? On top of this,  we need to believe that this man is capable of acts of extreme cruelty. I've seen a couple of duff Dorian Grays over the years - most of them stumbling when the casting settled for beauty over talent.

Merlin Holland and John O'Connor at least get it right in Guy Warren-Thomas. He combines an innate purity with growing arrogance and sociopathic tendencies, eventually coalescing into a Dorian that's not just some vicarious avatar for the audience to run through their Victorian playboy indulgences, but someone genuinely worrying.

He's the best thing in the production, my favourite flourish his reaction to hearing that his spurned fiancee Sibyl Vane has killed herself: So I have murdered Sibyl Vane, murdered her as certainly as if I had cut her little throat with a knife. And the roses are not less lovely for all that. The birds sing just as happily in my garden." It's the first moment in which Dorian realises that his soul is absent. Warren-Thomas plays this beautifully, simultaneously excited and disturbed at how little it's affecting him.

Perhaps it's because I've been watching and listening to a lot of David Bowie (RIP) over the last weeks, but Warren-Thomas' appearance, costumes and general demeanour strongly reminded me of his mid-70s 'Plastic Soul' style. In the mid 70s Bowie was pretty much running on cocaine (weighing just 97lb and sporting a 17in waist), while engaging in omnivorous acts of drug-fuelled predatory sexual degradation with virginal teenagers.

Indeed, in the gel-streaked debauchery sequences Dorian writhes around with Bowie-esque vigour to tripped out music, while coloured gels tossing crazy shadows across his angular features and child bearing lips. He twirls madly, sucking down opium while being caressed by a harem girl and a man in a ridiculous turban who looks like a refugee from pantomime. It's camp but effective - the woozy nightmare opium den accentuated by drug-warped voiceovers that dance on a knife-edge of cheesiness.

Warren-Thomas' Dorian feels like it's tapping into a wellspring of decadence, updating now quaint Victorian hedonism into self-centred modern fast-living. Indeed, this adaptation accentuates the homoeroticism of the text, promoting subtext to text. Holland (pleasingly (yet irrelevantly) Wilde's only grandchild) does this with the help of the original manuscript, the published version having had the more controversial passages excised. 

Facing off against this Dorian is, essentially, Oscar Wilde himself. Henry Wotton has always been a thinly veiled fictionalised Wilde, something this production amps up to maximum. Played by John Gorick, a veteran of playing Oscar Wilde, he looks, behaves and generally is the author trapped in his own story. This doppelganger factor layers on an extra slice of meaning; in the book Wotton eventually realises that Dorian is the logical conclusion of his passion for aesthetics and personal freedom and finding himself disgusted. Here, we see Wilde peering across the 20th century and finding himself alienated..

Though all this is going on under the bonnet, the surface is a neatly executed retelling of a great horror story. With four actors in multiple parts, the company decently recreates a Gothic Victorian sensibility, posing and stuffiness conceals rabid animal desires. As things crank up, Trafalgar Studios' smoke machine gets a decent workout, clouding events in an atmospheric Hammer horror fog.

Unfortunately there's a couple of flaws. It's a consciously minimalist production - a touch too austere given the focus on decadence. Another upshot of this is the often ridiculous contortions the cast must make to navigate between invisible rooms. The characters often walk across the stage, u-turn and walk back along invisible corridors. 

Also problematic are comedy peripheral characters that're played a touch too broad. I hope to god these are intentionally funny, because the cast hamming it up like pantomime dames is pretty ridiculous. Though these elements never quite spoil proceedings, they sap away seriousness and distract from the horror elements. 

This is a decent translation of a classic work, anchored by John Gorick's Wotton and boasting an effective and occasionally impressive Dorian in Warren-Thomas. While flawed, fans of Wilde won't be disappointed.


A Picture of Dorian Gray is at Trafalgar Studios until 13 February 2016. Tickets here.

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