Jermyn Street Theatre, London – until 6 July 2019
All the little Jermyn needs to complete this reimagination of Wildean epigrammatic decadence is to scent the auditorium overwhelmingly with lilies and light joss sticks round the tiny stage. Oscar Wilde’s aim after all is to overpower us until we faint with forbidden aesthetic passion. The deathless tale of Dorian Gray, who stayed beautiful while his portrait in the attic betrayed his hideous moral corruption, is one of Wilde’s most flutingly swoonsome hymns to art and beauty, and warning against their innate decadence.
Its a loose impressionistic take by Lucy Shaw, and Tom Littler’s handsomely staged production is a joint enterprise with the Stephen Joseph at Scarborough, where it knocked them out (Ayckbourn it ain’t). There are two vast frames, mirrored or translucent: we never see the portrait, wisely, but there’s a Narcissus-pool in which Dorian can gaze in admiration and later in horror. Four actors switch round in versions day by day: mine was Picture B, with Stanton Wright as Dorian, Helen Reuben as Basil the painter and Augustina Seymour as Henry Wotton, while Richard Keightley does others or hangs about the edge of the stage speaking Wildean epigrammatica to fit the moment.
It’s intriguing, and offers chances to see the parts played differently, but there are inevitable losses. The heaving gay subtext in Wilde’s book cannot simmer quite perilously enough if Sybil Vane is explicitly and verbally a bloke (as in versions B and D). A female Wootton and Basil work fine though, Seymour is splendidly smart-louche as the tempting friend, and Reuben as worried Basil.
As to Dorian, the trouble is that it always helps if you look as if Aubrey Beardsley had drawn you in a fug of opium. Wright’s handsomeness is a bit more in modern stubbly style than is ideal. But on nights C and D I imagine Reuben is ideal: ever so ethereal and soulfully androgynous. Must make it all the more shocking to hear him/her being accused of “creeping at dawn from dreadful houses”.
The style is broken, witticisms and profundities about art and beauty dropped in whenever it fits; the story is familiar, with the betrayal of Sibyl, the brother’s vengeance and the horror and fate of the artist. Sadly, Shaw leaves out what in my brooding teens I thought was the real kicker: the irony when the final murderous degradation of Dorian shows in the picture and appals him. He decides to be good and spare a flowerlike maiden but it doesn’t work. In the book he just looks into the portrait and finds it just as hideous but with a taint of hypocrisy… Put that back, I say!
jermynstreettheatre.co.uk to 6 July