Considering that Oscar Wilde’s reputation rests predominantly on perennial comedy favourites such as The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband, it’s interesting that his only novel is a much darker affair. Originally published in 1890, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a fascinating supernatural morality tale pitting the desirability of youth and beauty against more ethically meaningful concerns.
Wilde’s story has remained present in the public imagination, spawning regular dramatic adaptations which often use the premise to illustrate moral concerns of the day. During lockdown I saw a filmed version which addressed the dangers of social media, and it’s also used as a lens to explore extremes of homosexual licentiousness in a way that wasn’t possible in the Victorian setting of the original.
KCS (King’s College School) Theatre Co’s version, DORIAN, is conventional in its narrative approach, sticking to the period setting and telling the story relatively ‘straight’. But it has a few interesting production flourishes that make it a worthwhile contribution to the legacy of Wilde’s timeless story.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, Dorian Gray (Tom Conroy) is a devastatingly attractive young man of means who entrances both the artist Basil Hallwood (Sebastian Pavin) and older socialite Lord Henry Wotton (an aphorism-spouting stand-in for Wilde himself, here played by Roemer Lips). Basil paints a portrait of Dorian which perfectly captures his youth and beauty. On seeing his adorableness thus rendered, Dorian has a dreadful flash of insight into his mortality and the fleeting nature of the physical attributes upon which his self-worth rests. He wishes himself to be preserved forever just as he is, with the portrait instead bearing the ravages of age.
With this damnable deal obliged by supernatural forces, Dorian lives a debauched life which swiftly moves from idealised romanticism to heartless cruelty. He falls in love with and then breaks the heart of young actress Syble Vane, and is eventually driven to murder to protect the terrible secret embodied by the increasingly aged and ugly portrait in his attic.
This is a company of young performers, so a degree of suspended disbelief is necessary when it comes to the age of the characters: for instance Lord Henry should be of an older generation to Dorian, but here seems very much a contemporary. And in a story in which the central character’s beauty is a crucial plot engine you really do need to cast the hottest available Dorian. No offence to Mr Conway, but for all his enthusiasm he doesn’t quite make the grade as a jaw-dropping beauty, which rather pulls the rug from under the story’s premise. Personally, I would have given the part to the highly charismatic and handsome James Murray, under-used as ‘Beggar/Violinist’.
But while these production issues inevitably have an impact on the credibility of DORIAN, in one respect KCS Theatre Co score a definite hit: in their bold and imaginative approach to visualising the grim transformation of Dorian’s portrait. An actor plays the gradually degenerating soul-substitute, accompanied by two squirming creatures who can only be some sort of demon inhabitants of whatever hell Dorian’s spirit has been consigned to. When the portrait emerges from its frame, it is a really creepy and effective dramatic device, supported by the lighting and sound design, which are excellent throughout. There’s also some very evocative music and athletic physical choreography.
This iteration of Dorian was a one-off performance, but for all my quibbles I’d encourage anyone with an interest in classic gothic storytelling to seek out future showings, to witness for themselves a genuinely gripping and inventive approach to dramatising the central concept of Dorian Gray’s portrait.
Original story by: Oscar Wilde
Script devised by: L KCS Theatre Co