When Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was published in 1890 in a magazine, the editor was so fearful of its indecency he removed around 500 words without Wilde’s consent or knowledge.
More than 125 years later the story which so inflamed those who felt it violated Victorian laws of public morality, is still subject to much study, debate and analysis.
In Tin Robot Theatre’s radically adapted version of Wilde’s story, Gray is a movie star in the burgeoning, fickle world of 1930s Hollywood. It’s a masterstroke; a powerfully apt setting for Wilde’s exploration of aestheticism and hedonism.
Instead of a portrait, Gray is the subject of a film by director Basil Hallward who is infatuated with Gray and believes his beauty has helped him create his best work. Through Hallward, Gray meets Henry Wotton, a hedonist aristocrat in the original story but a brash production company boss in this version, and is taken in by his radical views of life; moved by Wotton’s insistence that he should ‘seek new sensations’ and greatly disturbed by the idea that his youth is temporary and that the world is only his ‘for a season’.
Gray’s wish that only the film will fade and his youth will remain comes true and his increasingly amoral existence corrupts the reel while he remains eternally young.
The homoerotic coding in Wilde's story has been subject to much analysis and here Carver makes this more explicit. Gray is depicted as a closeted Hollywood heartthrob whose hedonism results in homosexual experiences and hardcore drug use; bringing into focus the plight of real life Hollywood actors like Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter.
Aside from the bold and clever repositioning of the story, there are some genius touches in this production which are perfect for the Old Joint Stock’s intimate performance space.
There’s no crew, just one lighting technician; cast members provide sound effects from the side of the stage by using minimalistic but extremely effective props; running their fingers round the top of glasses and scrunching up plastic bottles to create palpable tension. Their echoing lines represent the tortuous thoughts in Gray’s increasingly plagued mind.
The standard of acting is really very high. Joel Heritage captures Gray’s descent from charming, attractive movie star into increasingly tortured debauchee. Jack Robertson is outstanding as the gangster-like producer Harry Wotton and Adam Carver is masterfully subtle as fawning director Basil Hallward. Meanwhile Grace Hussey-Burd and Touwa Craig-Dunn provide great support as the ill-fated actress Sibyl Vane and her brother Jim.
At times some of the story feels a tad too nuanced and the production placed an expectation on the audience to be more than familiar with the original story to fully appreciate it. At just an hour in length it’s a tour de force, but after an atmospheric build up the end does come rather quickly and Gray’s descent into a chaotic existence as he continues to grapple with his sexuality feels a little rushed.
That said, the extremely high quality of acting, ingenious use of sound and the boldness and originality of the story means there is a great deal to enjoy.
Having the ingenuity and bravery to take on a story as famous as this and reimagine it so dramatically is itself a feat for which Carver deserves the highest praise. This is a brave, bold, atmospheric and inventive adaptation of a classic.
This adaptation of The Picture Of Dorian Gray was written and devised by the company and directed by Adam Carver.
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