Given the cult of celebrity that insinuates itself ever further onto our screens and in our headlines, a study of the nature and consequences of narcissism could not be more contemporary. As the famous Wildean aphorisms that litter The Picture of Dorian Gray hove into view in the 'black box' of the Pilch Studio, I couldn't help thinking that Wilde's idea of genius lasting longer than beauty would these days be a open question rather than an unchallenged statement, and that maybe he delved at a deeper truth than opining in his familiar paradoxical style that "only shallow people do not judge the world by appearances."
The book and now play seethe with themes relating to the place of aestheticism in a hard, practical world, and the core exchanges between the painter Basil Hallward, his friend and patron Lord Henry Wotton and the nonpareil of beauty, Dorian Gray combine earnest ideas with the timeless glitter of 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 deaths 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 director Alice Taylor and producer Cameron Henderson-Begg have laboured long and creatively on the play, and in the super-helpful programme Ms Taylor talks of having returned faithfully to the 1891 version of the book before the censor's blue pencil crawled all over it. The playing space is small – tiny, really – and the first night's sell-out audience of c. 60 pressed in on the actors, leaving little scope for any extravagant movement, though there were brief forays into mime after the interval. The set was simple, just a coat stand, a low deal table, a chintz chaise longue and a shrouded mirror. In the Dorian Gray I saw last spring at St Hilda's College, the changes in Dorian's features were solved by back projection on the rear wall. Here the solution was on the whole less satisfactory, a two-way mirror being used to show the features of another actor (Sarah Dittrich) whose face darkened and deteriorated as the play went on. I thought the mirror a mite too small to make a full effect, and the make-up latterly applied had something of the circus ring about it.
Traces of its novelistic origins persist in the way we are told of events and characters at second hand, rather than experiencing them in the flesh. Thus in the case of the actress Sybil Vane, fleeting object of Dorian's infatuation, Lord Henry complains that in her repertory roles: "she's Desdemona one night and Ophelia the next", the one of course victim of male jealousy and the other of male neglect. In fact we see Miss Vane but little and Jeevan Ravindran is understandably unable to do much with her. Theatre is primarily a visual medium, and just as later I wanted to see Dorian's encroaching vice in action rather than having a list of his misdemeanours read out to me, so I wanted to see Miss Vane acting and breathing rather than be told about her.
An excellent Thea Keller, a slim, androgynous figure, plays Dorian as, until almost the end, retaining a good dollop of normality about him; this is no ethereal Adonis of legend or deeply-damaged monster from a Victorian penny dreadful but an affable friend and appreciative protégé. Thus his lurching late on through the gates of decency into a realm of evil is all the more effective a contrast. This is a most intelligent reading of the character from actor and director.
Basil Hallward (Chloe Taylor) is apprehensive to the point of fretfulness from first to last. Ms Taylor's intensity was impressive; her face set and her diction emphatic. But I did just want a little more variety of manner and voice, leading to a greater sense of an artist moving from being lost in hopeless and helpless adoration to anguish at the curdling of the dream. I had something of the same feeling vis a vis Lord Henry Wotton. Elegant in suit and patent leather shoes, with powdered hair and sporting a Havana cheroot, Carolina Earle plays him as a languid, effete aristocrat, a smiler at other people's discomfiture and pain, a malicious poker of hornets' nests. Ms Earle gives him a drawling, arch style of speech that contrasts interestingly with the relatively down-to-earth tones of Dorian Gray. I would have liked a sense he was on a journey towards ruthless cruelty, rather than that he had reached his destination in the opening scene and subsequently remained mining the same seam of depravity in his soul.
I would also mention Keshya Amarasinghe in a tiny role as blackmailed scientist Alan Campbell; her inherent energy suggested that her next role ought to be something bigger.
A worthy effort from this director and company, most of whom are 1st year students. They took the trouble to commission new, sub-atonal and effective music, and they've created a show of no small intensity. From here, for them it's onwards and upwards.