Lord Henry, an atypical witty Wildean figure, insists at the beginning of The Picture of Dorian Gray that “I can believe anything, provided it’s quite incredible.” As theatres are increasingly infused with stubborn realism and documentary theatre, it is easy to forget that the chief goal of drama is to entertain. Yes, it is here to educate and inform, but if this can be achieved subliminally than we are all the better for it. Neil Bartlett’s radical re-staging of Dorian Gray is very incredible indeed. This is not Wilde as museum piece, stuffy upper classes siting on stuffed couches repeating aphorisms verbatim, but the writer as he was meant to be – loud, stimulating and bracing. Bartlett and the excellent ensemble cast have dug deep and found a whole new meaning to Wilde.
Basil Howard, a sensitive painter, has created a portrait of Dorian capturing him in all his youthful beauty. Dorian, however, is less infatuated with the painting as he is with Lord Henry Wotton’s worldview. He flippantly expresses a desire to sell his souls so that the portrait will age rather than he and he will be left to enjoy an eternal life of excess. Dorian’s life is thus reflected on the portrait, and with each new sin comes a new disfigurement as his life descends into loneliness, madness and despair.
Bartlett neatly sidesteps the problem of the portrait by leaving it up to our imagination. This may seem like common sense, but on another level it suggests faith in the intelligence of the audience. In Dorian, the current social issue is teased rather than hammered out, the hideousness of hellish decadence evoked rather than painfully pointed. For a play that is intensely lush, from its leading man to the ladies costumes, it is joyfully and remarkably subtle. Tom Canton impresses in his debut, striking sinewy poses whilst happily leeching away life forces. His performance suggests the sadness of Dorian is not the loss of his soul, but his inherent soullessness. In truth, the question of Dorian Gray is not the price we pay for our souls, but the price we put on desire. What does it mean to be desired and what kind of casualty cruelty and expectation does it breed? However, these questions are often dressed up as B-movie horror. There are lashings of fake blood, some refined gore and plenty of high-pitched screaming. Much like Oscar Wilde himself this production is plenty of fun, but in no way frivolous.