MORE POIGNANT THAN POISONOUS: A 125TH ANNIVERSARY MARKED
One wit called it ‘the first French novel in English’, with its seductive evocation of exotic decadence and corrupting wickedness. Critics in the 1890’s sputtered “poisonous…heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction” and fit only for “outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys”. In other words, homosexual. But it has outlived them, this Oscar Wilde fable of the beautiful boy Dorian who keeps his fresh appearance while in the attic his portrait snarls, sneers and withers to monstrosity. It has a power beyond its snappy epigrammatism and slightly embarrassing passages of late-Victorian opium-dream exoticism. It deserves respect in the revisiting, not least as a cry of pain from the age of homosexual persecution.
In this version it gets that respect, because Wilde’s only grandson, Merlin Holland, with John O’Connor, has adapted and dramatized it, consulting unseen manuscripts and crucially reintroducing the more explicit homoeroticism which Wilde and his editors prudently removed. Basil Hallward, the decent, vulnerable artist who paints the portrait, now declares himself openly to the scornful Dorian, and does it at the moment when he is pleading with him to give up his decadent criminality. It’s about love: and Basil – not the witty corrupting Lord Henry Wotton or even Dorian himself – is the heart of it. Wilde , who of course was married with children he loved, and not yet exposed as gay, himself admitted that Basil was himself, though Wotton was “what the world thinks me”. There’s a melancholy in that.
So one approaches the show itself with respect, though it is a mere studio-scale four-hander and – despite some nimble direction by Peter Craze – not as lavish as other attempts have been. Holland and O’Connor’s shaping is effective, and the fragments of additional dialogue are sharp; there’s a lovely moment, not in the book, when the tradesman who carries the picture upstairs is told he can’t look at it, so assumes pornography and hopefully offers Dorian some “French” pictures he has out the back. Wilde’s endless contrarian epigrams in the mouth of Lord Henry (John Gorick slick-haired and bowtied, an overripe Oscar) can become bit tiresome when one knows them too well. But not everyone does, so that is fine.
Fine in a more positive sense is the characterisation, notably by Rupert Mason superb as Basil Hallward. He gives restrained painful reality to the painter’s fear of his own helpless worship, mingled with real unease at Wotton’s influence on the boy’s innocence. Guy Warren-Thomas as Dorian is blond and chiselled enough to make worship credible; though not the conventionally prettiest of youths he has a striking memorable oddity about him, and a slightly wooden stillness and soft romanticism in the first half which works. At least, if you accept that Dorian is “plastic”, corruptible by Wotton’s yellow-book witticisms. Helen Keeley’s Sibyl Vane is breathily sweet, with a nice humour, and genuinely poignant in her moment of fatally renouncing stage pretence for love.
All good. A problem though in this four-hander (which might profitably have been framed in artful meta-theatre style to defuse the awkwardness ) is that the doubling and tripling of casting forces three principals to diverge repeatedly from their fully felt main performances and dip hastily jnto caricature acting – Gorick has to be Sibyl’s Mum, a butler, a blackmailed medic, and an opium-crazed victim of Dorian’s decline; Mason must abandon his troubling, profound Hallward to be a Duchess, a dodgy theatre-manager, Sibyl’s vengeful sailor brother and the framer. As for Helen Keeley, she flowers into seven other characters of diverse ages, all with the same elaborate hairdo as Sibyl, and yes, that is a problem.
But it’s only a problem because, below the ripping-yarn quality there is a seriousness in the tale which Holland honours. It’s not just a horror-story – though the smoke, green light, opium pipes and a pleasing creepiness in the second half tend that way. Dorian’s hedonism is a tragedy, and Wilde knew it. Wotton’s epigrams and praise of fleeting pleasures are just fragile armour against the disappointments of life in the emotional shallows: Wilde knew that too. For where can you live but in the sparkling shallows, when society would damn and imprison you for expressing your deeper self?
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