By Jeremy Miles (27th March 2015)
The Picture of Dorian Grey: Shelley Theatre, Boscombe
Oscar Wilde’s famous cautionary tale found Dorian Gray selling his soul to the Devil in return for eternal youth. No matter how hedonistic or dissolute his behaviour his handsome looks would never fade. The brutal debauched truth of his excessive life was gradually etched instead on a portrait stashed in his attic. It shocked polite society in the1890s.
In this 21st century re-working for the Doppelgänger theatre company, Bafta winning writer John Foster reimagines Dorian as a famous photo-journalist, a striking figure, wildly attractive and successful. But away from the celebrity scene he is drawn to the macabre. He gets his thrills from death and decay. Street murders, wars, famines are an endless fascination. His Faustian pact involves a digital photograph rather than an oil painting but the deal is the same. No matter how excessive, evil or corrupt his behaviour he will never age.
In an intense and passionate performance Alessandro Babalola plays Dorian as a very modern man, trapped by his own vanity and utterly unable to control his increasingly dark desires. In a nifty gender switch from the original Anna Newcome is Basel Hallward, his muse from the local morgue, while Amelia Gardham is Henri Wotton - hedonist, mind-gamer, sadomasochist and all round bad influence. Both are excellent but Newcome’s performance stands out as she leads Dorian to the edge of disaster and then realises he is completely out of control.
Director Charmaine K. Parkin hones in on the bare bones of the story, both emotionally and visually. While Maria-Helena Farah’s deceptively simple set serves to highlight the slow collapse and moral disintegration of Dorian’s world. It’s a journey which takes him from the sun-bathed idyll of a favourite beach, exploring his ‘otherness’, waving a copy of Albert Camus’ The Outsider to a bleak rain-lashed urban hell of booze, visceral sex, robbery, murder and eternal misery.
There are fine performances from all concerned. Quite a feat for Foster’s lengthy and complex script cannot be easy to navigate. It is packed with rhythmic, poetic and intensely observational dialogue that demands much from both performer and audience which is where it falls down. This version of The Picture of Dorian Gray is simply too long. Shave half an hour off and it would pack a real punch.
It would be well worth the pain of editing for it makes a fascinating companion piece to Foster’s recently staged modern-day reworking of Robert Louis Stephenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The stories date from the same era, explore similar psychological territory and both allow the playwright to juggle with the gender and historic context of the characters. They are also perfect material for Boscombe’s wonderful Shelley Theatre.