Written by Daen Palma Huse
One of the most notable pieces of writing by Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray has been adapted many times after its original release in the late 1800s. When the novel appeared, many voices were outraged. The Daily Chronicle reported:
“It is a tale spawned from the leprous literature of the French Décadents – a poisonous book, the atmosphere of which is heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction n– a gloating study of the mental and physical corruption of a fresh, fair and golden youth, which might be fascinating but for its effeminate frivolity, its studied insincerity, its theatrical cynicism, its tawdry mysticism, its flippant philosophisings, and the contaminating trail of garish vulgarity which is over all Mr. Wilde’s elaborate Wardour Street aestheticism and obtrusively cheap scholarship.”
Many of the terms used in this review are coded terms for “homesexuality” – a word that was only about to enter public discourse. Substantial cuts in the story had subsequently been made in many of the publications of the work that was to follow.
A new adaptation that is currently being shown at Richmond Theatre raises questions about how to approach a novel that has been reinterpreted many times and how something can be offered to the audience that is entertaining and at the same time offering a subtle contemporaneity and relevance to its viewers.
A passage that had been deleted in previous versions of the published novel included the speech by the painter Basil to Dorian in which he confesses his adoration:
“It is quite true I have worshipped you with far more romance of feeling than a man should ever give to a friend. Somehow, I have never loved a woman.... From the moment I met you, your personality had the most extraordinary influence over me.... I adored you madly, extravagantly, absurdly. I was jealous of everyone to whom you spoke. I wanted to have you all to myself. I was only happy when I was with you."
The new adaption of Dorian Gray on show at Richmond Theatre has deleted parts of this particular passage, too (“I have never loved a woman.”). The adaptation deletes several homoerotic references of the original novel altogether – and unfortunately the slight lack of personal tension between characters results in a disjoint between actor’s performances.
The two most recent notable characterisations of Oscar Wilde’s twisted character on screen are a Dorian Gray created by John Logan and played by Reeve Carney in the visually beautiful series Penny Dreadful (2014-2016) that is already cold and unapproachable by nature of his doomed relationship with his own portrait - and equally, the Dorian Gray directed by Oliver Parker in 2009 displayed a gothic quality transpiring through a seemingly unchanging façade of youth and beauty. In both adaptations, this façade starts to crumble and ultimately draws Dorian Gray into nothingness with a theatrical effect.
The adaptation by Tilted Wig Productions, Malvern Theatres, and Churchill Theatre including Jonathan Wrather in the cast certainly had big shoes to fill, and the creators somewhat seem to have taken on more than they could digest within the timeframe of an evening’s theatre play. The stage set is a rustic apartment and changing lighting suggests changes of location, from the painter Basil’s studio to a backstage room to Lord Henry’s living room and Dorian Gray’s own residence. Whilst changes of location are made clearly, the use of set, props and costume are traditional. What thus comes as a surprise are coloured light and contemporary dance intervals in the second half of the play that aim at creatively indicating Dorian Gray’s state of mind. Whilst the play starts to explore some interesting angles to reinterpreting the story, it does not embrace one approach fully.
Richmond Theatre is a beautiful Frank Matcham theatre. Built in 1899 as the Theatre Royal and Opera House, it was refurbished in 1991. The inside of the auditorium embodies the aesthetic of the late 19th century, a perfect setting for the play.