Neil Bartlett’s take on The Picture of Dorian Grey sounds like it might be a good idea on paper, but it doesn’t really come off in the execution. Oscar Wilde’s dark and sinister gothic horror has a timeless quality to it, but Bartlett’s interpretation of the material seems a little too shallow. Given the subject matter, you could argue that’s a good thing, but it sadly doesn’t make for the most satisfying of results.
The Picture of Dorian Grey feels consciously “stage-y.” The back wall of the the theatre is visible for most of the production, the cast occasionally speak through microphones and the ensemble haunt the edge of the stage as if worried we might forget who they are if they venture out of sight. It’s the kind of high-concept execution that feels appropriate for the story of a superficially beautiful young man, but it doesn’t work almost as well as it should.
In fact, it distracts quite a bit from the story being told, as the cast are constantly rearranging the scenery while delivering their lines, creating the impression that the chow is too busy waiting for the next scene to arrive, instead of engaging us with what is happening at present. The minimalist set design from Kandis Cook looks quite good, but the play never really seems to come to life in any substantive way. It never engages or excites, despite the fascinating set up.
Technically, the play is quite effective. It looks and sounds great. The lighting design from Chris Davey is as effective as possible when it comes to conveying mood. The sound design by Ivan Birthistle adds an ethereal quality to everything. There’s a sense that show really shouldadd up to more than it really does. There’s all manner of solid ingredients, any yet the play seems to refuse to solidify into something more substantial.
Bartlett makes sure to include any number of instantly-recognisable Wildean witticisms within his dialogue, even several that don’t originate from the work in question. Those work well at drawing an affectionate chuckle of recognition from the audience, but I can’t help but feel they could have been better deployed. My better half astutely observed that such an approach might have been a clever vehicle to explore Wilde’s claim, “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks me: Dorian is what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.” Unfortunately, none of that really shines through in the finished product.
The cast seem a little awkward. I can’t tell if it’s due to Bartlett’s direction, because there is a strange stilted quality to a lot of the interactions between the characters. Indeed, Jasper Britton seems to channel Eric Idle while playing Lord Henry, a decision that works surprisingly well at some points, but falls down at others. There’s no real consistency.
Tom Canton is convincing as the boy playing innocent with society at large, but his Dorian Grey seems strangely toothless in his other interactions. Dorian should seem contemptable, vile, but also strangely alluring at the same time, but he just seems to be sulking like a spoilt child. We never feel too much disgust for him, but we can’t really muster up any deep pity either. He just seems to exist, occupying the self-aware framework created by Bartlett.
Bartlett creates an aesthetically appealing framework for his version of Wilde’s iconic tale, but he has difficulty really convincing us too care too much about it or anyone who inhabits it. Basil seemed to pour a bit of Dorian’s soul into the canvas, elevating a beautiful piece of art into something more. As such, it’s a bit of a shame that nobody can inject too much life into this play.