The Picture of Dorian Gray review: ‘half-hearted’

By Tania Chakraborti

Admittedly, I had high hopes for Fourth Wall Theatre’s (FWT) The Picture of Dorian Gray. With a seasoned cast and production team, and the promise of ‘an alternative interpretation of Wilde’s greatest classic […] set in the modern day,’ I had no reservations about being thoroughly hooked for the evening. In essence a tale about the dangers of vanity, the premise of Wilde’s story has so much scope for creativity when re-imagining it in the twenty-first century. However, Director Katie O’ Toole and Assistant Director Zac Tiplady simply failed to deliver on their promises. Despite the show boasting some obvious merits, the lack of directorial clarity was this production’s greatest limitation.

In a previous interview with Palatinate, O’Toole expressed that the story’s focus on vanity ‘is more relevant today than it was in the nineteenth century,’ yet the conviction to bring us firmly into the twenty-first century was half-hearted at best. The set was visually impressive; an array of appealing mirrors upstage worked wonderfully to highlight the theme of narcissism, whilst a few well-placed props transported us to the realms of London aristocratic society. Yet this society was definitely not ours; it was more suited to Wilde’s own climate of the 1890s. Music choices should have been more obvious. Accents used and costumes worn suited the Victorian period far more, whilst those clothes that were firmly modern acted in direct opposition to the very words articulated by the actors on stage.

Little effort whatsoever had been made to alter the script to fit our modern period. This simply meant that the themes being addressed; such as reputation and the validity of marriage  so powerful in Wilde’s time  had no real relevance to the modern audience watching the scenes unfold. If the director’s intention was to modernise, then this ought to have been done with fierce conviction. Though the characterisations of actors were perfect for Wilde’s original text, the lack of attention to modernisation let the production down. This was most evident in the scene where Dorian engages in hedonism with woman and drugs. It was jarring and lacked sense; ‘tarted-up’ prostitutes spoke proficiently in archaic prose about Catherine de Medici. Suffice to say the audience was left a little confused.

Yet this clear oversight was balanced by some real talent showcased by the actors and other laudable aspects of the production. Technical Director Emily Hicks should be commended for her slick and professional lighting changes throughout, which really added to the moments of suspense, particularly when Dorian’s characterisation took a sinister turn.

The standard of acting was excellent from every member of the cast. Sarah Cameron, who played the eponymous Dorian Gray, must be given a great deal of credit for taking on the iconic role. Admittedly, it was clear in earlier scenes that Cameron was endeavouring a balancing act between conveying the naivety of the young Dorian, whilst attempting to convey the directed masculinity of her character. Although I was not an immediate fan of the gender swap, I appreciate the directorial decision and only wish more had been made out of it to suit a modern context. However, Cameron’s later scenes really were worthy of praise; her cold and steely moments of amorality were haunting. The final scenes showcasing Dorian’s deterioration from a confident man to a guilt-ridden wreck were also especially powerful; there is no doubt that Cameron is a highly talented actress.

Another great presence was Barnabas Mercer. He was everything one imagines Lord Henry Wotton to be; his characterisation throughout exuded the necessary confidence and charm demanded of that role, whilst his comic timing was delivered with ease as he continued to command the stage. Hamish Lloyd Barnes was another excellent casting decision; he completely encapsulated the obsessive, erratic and insecure nature of the painter Basil Hallward, complimenting Mercer’s calm confidence perfectly in the opening scenes.

Pockets of comedy really elevated the show to an even higher standard and for this, Claire Forster in her multi-rolling capacity was an asset to the production. Her stand-out moment as the portrait handler sent the audience into prolonged giggles. Her characterisation as The Duchess of Harley, alongside Layla Chowdhury’s role as Lady Agatha, also proved to be a killer pairing, with the audience forced into fits of chuckles throughout their synchronised reactions.

It is true that FWT struggled to achieve what it set out to do and this is somewhat of a shame given the stellar performances showcased. Directorial haziness prevented it living up to its full potential, but I cannot fault the standard of acting or the commitment of the thirteen actors to the characterisations that they were set to work with. However, if you are a fan of Wilde’s infamous text, I urge you to head on down to the Assembly Rooms Theatre; you will be met with a familiar retelling of a rich and provocative tale, spotlighting the themes of vanity, sedition, murder and immorality. Forcing us to face the chilling question can a soul ever truly be redeemed? It is certainly worth a ticket.

‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ will be performed in The Assembly Rooms Theatre from Wednesday 15th March until Friday 17th March at 19:30. Book your tickets here.

Photograph: Sam Harrison

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