Oscar Wilde was never a miser with language, but in The Picture of Dorian Gray he is as indulgent as the protagonist with his prose. So, paring it down to a three-man play with a minimal set was never going to be easy. Somehow, Wonderland Productions manages it. Mostly.
Part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, the play is staged in The Dark House (the Duke of York’s teetotal sibling). The walls are paneled with oak, the tables are set with plates of hor d'oeuvres and the audience sips wine or fragrant teas. It is the sort of place you could imagine Wilde patronizing.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is a difficult story to pin down. It is a horror story with only one supernatural event, a passion-play with no salvation, an erotic horror about suppressed eroticism.
Basil Hallward, played by Michael James Ford, is a painter infatuated with a new subject: Michael Winder’s iteration of the beautiful Dorian Gray. It is he who posits the notion that great beauty is a curse of a kind, but, hypocritically, he is as infatuated with Gray’s looks as everyone else.
Anxious not to sully Gray’s innocence - or loose his pre-eminent spot in the youth’s affections - Hallward tries to prevent a meeting with Lord Henry Wotton, believing he would be a bad influence. His evasiveness, however, only whets Wotton’s curiosity.
Simon Coury as Wotton picks his way around The Dark House with careful, gliding steps, as if afraid he’ll trip over his own loucheness. He plays the seducer, manipulating the vulnerable Gray’s vanity and childishness. An armchair Machiavelli, he directs Gray down a debauched path that Wotton himself is too lazy to walk. A route mapped out in depravity on the portrait Hallward painted of Gray.
All three actors inhabit the skins of their characters with confidence, yet Winder’s performance as Gray lacks a certain edge, never evolving beyond sullen adolescence. Gray’s supernaturally preserved youth is the fulcrum around which the play moves. However, in Winder’s case it is translated as a failure to quite command the stage, always ceding focus to Ford and Coury.
There are also a few issues caused by the minimalism of the production. Redressing the actors as minor characters for a few lines feels unnecessarily confusing. Coury’s quick-change into Sir Geoffrey Clouston is just a little disorienting, and Ford’s turn in drag as Lady Wotton is uncomfortably close to a panto dame.
The appearance and disappearance of props is also amusing when you catch it happening, with hands appearing from behind the bar and groping around like Thing from The Addams Family.
On the whole, this Wonderland Productions piece is an interesting performance carried on the conviction of the actors. And the setting is appealing, although those who missed out on a seat and have to settle for a stool (like myself) suffer from numb bottoms judging from the general shuffling towards the end.
Check out our What's On listings for information on all Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival events.