Oscar Wilde first published The Picture of Dorian Gray in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890, and only expanded it into a fully-fledged novel the following year. During the development process he toned down some of the work’s homoerotic elements (although he insisted this was for artistic reasons and had nothing to do with the scandal that had surrounded the original publication), and these have largely been restored in this stage adaptation by John O’Connor and Wilde’s own grandson, Merlin Holland.
The plot sees the artist Basil Hallward paint a portrait of Dorian Gray, a youth whose beauty and innocence have captivated him. He initially refuses ever to exhibit the work, feeling he has put too much of himself into it, and when Dorian sees the completed picture he wishes he could stay as pure and youthful as the painted figure staring back at him will always be. He then discovers that whenever he does wrong it is the picture and not he that bears the sin in its face, which encourages him to lead a callous, hedonistic life. As everyone with whom he becomes associated ends up either dead, mad or with their reputation shattered, the figure in the picture grows old, twisted and ugly, but no-one can ever believe Dorian was at fault because he remains so young and innocent looking.
It is only towards the end of the play that Dorian shows any sign of remorse, claiming that beauty is a mask and youth a mockery, and the piece explores the relationship between outward appearance and the inner self. Dorian is fully aware of what he can get away with as the outward guilt falls on the picture, Basil declares that the painting is Dorian’s soul and it is as black as hell, while another character Lord Henry Wotton proclaims that only shallow people see beauty beyond the appearance.
The adaptation is staged simply yet effectively by Peter Craze in the smaller of the two Trafalgar Studios, with Duncan Hands’ lighting proving highly atmospheric and three of the four-strong cast playing multiple parts. The painting is portrayed using just a blank frame, but sometimes Guy Warren-Thomas playing Dorian stands behind it, and in those moments succeeds in projecting quite a different persona. With his darting eyes and nervous smile he captures the innocent youth very well before coming across very differently as the more cruel and calculating figure.
Rupert Mason and Helen Keeley are superb as, amongst other people, Basil and Dorian’s first love, Sybil Vane, while John Gorick is excellent as Lord Henry. With his long locks and penchant for epigrams, he could be Wilde himself, which ties in with the writer’s own assertion that the character ‘is what the world thinks me’. However, when we see how he behaves, and hear him utter the play’s final line, we realise that he perhaps was always a far more callous character than even Dorian Gray was ever capable of being.
Until 13 February at the Trafalgar Studios, 14 Whitehall, London SW1A 2DY. For tickets (£15-£25) visit the Ambassador Theatre Group website. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.