Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray bursts with themes relating to the place of aestheticism in a hard, practical world, and the core exchanges between the painter Basil Hallward, the aristocratic Lord Henry Wotton and the nonpareil of beauty, Dorian Gray sizzle with earnest ideas beneath the glittering surface of the wit. In Dorian's circle of friends, beauty is skin-deep. He is welcomed and coddled because of his appearance, and even when his vices ruin lives and lead to the death of those around him, he retains power because of his attractiveness. He shines most brightly when unaware of his own magnetism; when conscious of it, the pure milk of his life curdles into surface and appearance.
There was ample evidence that joint directors Alex Barasch and Ben Piggin have laboured long and creatively on the play, starting with spending their Christmas vacation turning the Wilde novel into dramatic form when they might have relied on the one or two extant versions, of whose expurgated nature they rightly disapprove. They have made good use of the unwieldy stage - elongated but shallow and backed by its rather forbidding brick wall - by sometimes expanding into the audience's space.
The lighting design made telling visual contrast between the scenes of epigrammatic exegesis, where Wilde opines upon life ('The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it'), the arts ('I do love acting: it is so much more real than life'), the social code ('the tragedy of the poor is that they can afford nothing except self-denial'), and those marking the progress of Dorian Gray from heaven to hell.
The set was simple but adorned by suitably Arts and Crafts-era chairs, another small instance of directorial care, and set changes were slickly done by silhouetted figures in the darkness. Costume design was less certain; though Dorian cut a most handsome figure in their mulberry smoking jacket, Jhanie Fender's outfit and hairstyle in his/her dual role as Dorian's lover/Duchess of Monmouth were neither in period nor markedly out of it, and Lord Henry Wotton cut a bit of a dishevelled figure. His valet needed sacking.
I'd been wondering beforehand how the changes in Dorian's portrait would be shown; in the 1945 Albert Lewin film the black-and white of the rest of the film is dramatically infused with brief, brilliant Technicolor for the portrait. Here the question was ingeniously solved by back projection on the brick wall - simple and clever.
Jack Doyle as Dorian Gray was a suitably lithe, androgynous, even dashing figure. The other characters' fascination in him was entirely plausible. Callum Luckett was a very good Hallward, dealing equally well with the initial self-confidence of the artist and with the doubt that gradually creeps upon and then gnaws away at him. The pick of the other players were Laura Gledhill as Mrs Vane (complete with an oddly intriguing accent) and Lady Wotton, and Andrew Crump as scientist Alan Campbell, making a brief but telling impression, indicating that his next role ought to be much more substantial.
Tonight's The Picture of Dorian Gray will become the first Oxford student show to be live streamed to a remote audience. I would not go so far as to suggest that this might be the way to see it, but there was at yesterday's first night a problem of basic audibility. Even from the front row, I missed some of dialogue from Charlotte Pawley's Lord Henry Wotton, and when I moved to the back after the interval the character's flow of repartee was next to inaudible, as were at times both Dorian Gray and Basil Hallward. Other audience members told me they shared my difficulty.
This cleverly-adapted play is a most welcome novelty in amongst the familiar, possibly over-familiar, canon of Wildean comedies. Recommended!