Originally published on The Reviews Hub
Awarded 1 Star – Overreaching
“To influence a person is to give him one’s own soul”. Words uttered by Henry Wotton (Aneurin Pascoe) at the start of Oscar Wilde’s philosophical novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wotton is already exerting his influence upon the young ingénue and protagonist Mr Gray (David Hepburn) after seeing his infamous portrait, the masterpiece of friend and artist Basil Hallward (Rodrigo De La Roza).
The beauty in Wilde’s storytelling here is the space between the text, the supposedly hidden messages that the author was able to allude to without explicitly stating. When translating this to stage, it must be a joy for any director to work with such powerful material and such a prominent script. Only a few cleverly placed devices and some subtle styling are required to transform this into a really powerful piece of theatre. Unfortunately, Tom Drayton attempts too much with this cast from Pregnant Fish Theatre and as such completely dilutes the beauty that oozes from Wilde’s original words.
As far as the original plot goes, Drayton largely stays on course. Mr Gray originally meets Henry Wotton while posing for a portrait with good friend and admirer Basil Hallward. The young and naïve man is led astray under Henry’s influence, falling for working-class actress Sybil Vane (Emily Watkins) at a run-down theatre. Their love burns fast and sparks out, leading Sybil to eventually kill herself when stricken with grief at Dorian’s sudden rejection of her love. As time passes, the young man retains his youth and beauty, his looks immortalised by the painting, which instead grows vile, old and decrepit. Vanity, grief and guilt all overwhelm Dorian in the years that follow, leading him to commit ever more depraved and eventually murderous acts of treachery against his former friends before he himself is forced to confront his own true reflection.
Crowbarring songs into a play of this magnitude is always going to be a challenge – both the music and lyrics need to have impact while keeping true to the plot itself. The efforts of the composers Geoffrey Higgs and James Long are to be applauded here, but the execution is nothing short of disastrous; an acoustic guitar is never going to give the required Gothic atmosphere to complement this script. Some of the piano pieces show competence but are equally unsuccessful, due to a cast that simply does not have the required training to pull off such jarring and dissonant harmonies. By the end of the play, it seems as though the composers have been so set on giving each character a song/ duet that they have inserted musical numbers into every feasible crevice of the production such that the scenes lose all their power and become caricatured shells of their former selves. There is even a dance break to signify how over time Dorian spirals down into his lifestyle hedonism and sin, a completely irrelevant stylistic device since the plot itself speaks volumes about his journey into depravity.
As the title character, Hepburn does what he can with the material and direction given. Indeed, his scenes with first love Sybil (Watkins) are the best parts of the play – the journey that these two take together has emotional impetus and are the only scenes that give the script room to breathe. The actors are easily head and shoulders above the remainder of the cast, most of whom give sub-standard performances. Some of this is down to the actors themselves, but a good percentage can also be apportioned to director Drayton; lines are rushed, key sections of the story are poorly blocked (the gentleman’s trip to see Sybil in Romeo & Juliet) and there are too many attempts to stylise this production. A couple of things work, for example using a mirror as the portrait clearly demonstrates the reflection of Dorian’s tainted and tortured soul. But even this is taken too far; the audience is able to understand the symbolism in the painting without having evil voices and sinister hissing emanating from the rest of the cast as they hide behind the prop itself.
It has been 125 years since The Picture of Dorian Gray was published by Oscar Wilde as a short story and as such a number of theatre companies are bringing it back into the spotlight. This can only be a good thing, an homage to the superb writing, intelligence and bravery of the author himself – Wilde is not afraid to stand out from a crowd that at the time were highly likely to shun, discriminate and even persecute him (as indeed they did). To do this play justice, one should simply let it speak for itself, a classic case of less is more. Pregnant Fish Theatre are to be applauded for their efforts, but ultimately the concept in this production is muddied and overcomplicated; it’s lost its focus and its message.
Music: Geoffrey Higgs, James Long, Adam Dagen-Smith
Writer: Oscar Wilde
Adaptor & Director: Tom Drayton
Reviewer: Daniel Perks
Runs until 2 April 2016