first night

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Sam Kingston-Jones finds ACT's Dorian educating but rarely enthralling...

 Attempting to put a BBC adaptation onstage is no mean feat, and by all accounts, Steffi Walker and Tom Eklid did a thorough job in The Picture of Dorian Gray. The first hurdle overcome, Walker and Eklid found themselves a suitable Dorian in Charlie Warner. Refined and well-spoken, Warner could not be further removed from the spotty, overconfident adolescent that Dorian is so often cast as in student and school theatre. An attractive male who, lord help us, has a good brain on him, Warner is able to convey at once an ethereal lyricism and devilish naturalism.

Unfortunately ACT’s second hurdle proved more challenging to overcome. Dorian Gray is a novel, and, unlike Eklid, I have to admit that on reading the novel my first reaction was not that it should be turned into a play. The main spectacle of an aging portrait is nigh on impossible to portray on a student theatre budget and perhaps this explains why John Osborne’s adaptation was made for screen.

Similar problems arise in the language used. Writing at an intimidating rate of witticisms, Wilde makes Dorian Gray an editor’s nightmare and there is never a feeling that the adaptation in question does much to transfer this to dialogue. Whilst it seems a shame to drag on so much about the play, the director is still responsible for the play they choose, even if the forces around it are doing their best to make it better.

Adaptation aside, both Eklid and Walker have clearly conveyed an intimidating knowledge and understanding of the source text to their cast. Each prop, costume, even each movement was engineered with the greatest thought. The shadow-box; the decision to show us the bare rear of the wafer thin canvass; the mismatched colours on the screen behind which Sybil changes, every directorial choice seemed measured and precise.

However, the approach did sometimes feel slightly mathematical, almost as if actors had been told exactly what to portray rather than allowing them to feel it for themselves. Again, I understood exactly what I was supposed to feel, I never felt it.

Nonetheless, there was the unavoidable issue of a speaker that bust on opening night, a factor that no doubt shook the cast quite dramatically. It is impossible to truly believe in a character as an actor when unsure if the technical aspect is precarious, and perhaps I am being unfair on the cast and their directors in this way.

One thing that is inexcusable at this age however is the failure to learn one’s lines. To ignore this would be to do the rest of the cast and crew a severe injustice as throughout the production shows agonising potential. Certain performances can only be described as a breath of fresh air. Nat Goodwin’s doe-eyed innocence once more melts the hearts of her audience, whilst Conor Turley throws in an extremely capable performance as the thuggish but kind-hearted James Vane.

Of all the scenes however, the most powerful is that between Warner and Joe Burke. In Dorian’s manipulation of Campbell, the actors find a true naturalism in the poetic language. For the first time in a while in Durham theatre I found myself truly sucked in to the action, as Alan reluctantly makes his way towards the ominous silhouette of basil’s body beneath the painting.

This use of shadow was something to be applauded, and whilst the shadow box would have benefited from a greater budget, it was nonetheless effective. Similarly the collection of period furniture and ornaments was just enough to establish the setting, again allowing the audience’s imagination to fill in the details that a student theatre budget is unable to attain.

All in all, I found myself challenged and engaged by the production. Don’t be fooled by the sparse use of props and set onstage, ACT’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a deceptively detailed and highly academic production. The production clearly has the intelligence to be something truly astounding and I can only hope in the absence of teething problems, you’ll be able to add at least one more star.

* * *

Sam Kingston-Jones

3 March 2012

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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