The Picture of Dorian Gray
An experimental adaptation of Oscar Wilde's Gothic masterpiece is undermined by a spinning disco ball
Everyone knows the story of Dorian Gray: Oscar Wilde's icon of glorified boyhood, spoilt, weak and effete, his angelic features untainted by the hedonistic life of vice and degradation that he leads in the underworld of Victorian London.
Gray's secret, of course, is the portrait he hides in his attic, which magically absorbs his vicissitudes, growing older and uglier with every passing year. The original book is a true Gothic melodrama, brimming with homo-eroticism, and packed to the gills with Wilde's elegantly cynical epigrams.
In this unusual performance at the 2013 Out To Lunch arts festival, by Wonderland Productions, the flamboyance is pared way back; although, this being Wilde, you still got plenty of hand-clasping, tightly-fitting velvet waistcoats and emotionally-charged declarations.
The epigrams fly thick and fast too, courtesy of the languid Lord Henry Wotton: 'Men marry because they are tired, women because they are curious,' he sighs. 'Both are disappointed.' Or the old favourite: 'The only way to get rid of a tempation is to yield to it.' But the spare setting is strikingly at odds with the opulence of Wilde's text.
It takes place in the main space of the Black Box, the tables set out cabaret style, while the action unfolds in the centre of the room under the stark glare of a single spotlight, where an empty easel stands. It is soon made clear that the audience will have to do much of the imaginative heavy lifting in their own heads: we will see no actual portraits tonight, grotesque or otherwise.
While it is strange, at first, to see the members of the three-man cast burst in and out of the doors to the toilets between scenes, the informality of the play begins to grow on me.
I find myself caught up in the passionate exchanges between Dorian (evoked with white-faced intensity by Michael Winder, the histrionics only slightly offset by his curly-bap hair) and his two older mentors: the foppish yet principled painter Basil Hallward (Michael James Ford), and Lord Henry (Simon Coury), the affectedly heartless socialite.
Yet it is odd to be so close to the action, especially with the house lights up. You don't have the usual sense of sinking into anonymous darkness while the action plays itself out before you. In fact, in this production, the audience is almost part of the performance.
That proves to be a distraction at times: my companion finds her attention drawn irresistibly to a man sitting close by who spends much of the time chewing voraciously on his fingers, and I am bothered by the creaking of the mirrored disco ball overhead, which keeps turning throughout the performance, giving a strange Saturday Night Fever dimension to proceedings.
Fortunately, though, the highly adaptive cast give a collective performance of such energy and confidence that such minor quibbles are forgiven, if not quite forgotten.
While some subtlety of narrative and characterisation is inevitably lost by the simplicity of the adaptation – for instance, one vital character appears and is killed off again within moments – I enjoy this audacious theatrical experiment. But next time, please remember to turn off the disco ball. I don't want thoughts of John Travolta interfering with my Wildean feast.
Out To Lunch 2013 continues until January 27.