Thursday, 21 September 2017

REVIEW: Picture of Dorian Gray at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury

Oscar Wilde's only book , a Picture of Dorian Gray was first published in 1890 and was criticised for being indecent and subjected to censorship as it dealt with Dorian's pursuit of an immoral life having wished his portrait aged rather than himself . It is a book about a Victorian male aristocratic dominated society with only two female characters, Sybil Vane, an actress from a poor background who commits suicide when Dorian finishes with her and Mrs Vane , her mother. 

The book , a gothic horror , is now on the school's curriculum and therefore seems a natural follow on to last year's Watermill school tour production of Frankenstein . This production stages a version of the book with just three female actresses and is created within the constraints of a school tour budget by Phoebe Eclair - Powell , daughter of comedian Jenny Eclair. She and director Owen Horsley have done a brilliant job translating the tale to the stage and have great fun with the form of the play and turn the budget limitations to clever advantage . A simple illuminated frame is used to create the settings and present the picture itself .

The audience is constantly reminded that we are in a theatre watching a play and quickly accept the gender fluidity that sees Dorian Gray presented in a sexy black skirt . It challenges the audience to consider the meaning of the Wilde quote the play uses: "All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors." The purpose of this art is to entertain and celebrate beauty and youth and this production delivers.

Though still set at the turn of the 20th century , the language of the two narrators is modern and makes the show accessible for a school audience . Lord Henry Wootton becomes Wotts and the artist Basil Hallwood becomes Baz. The frequent misogynistic Wilde lines become mockingly comic when delivered by the actresses such as "My dear boy, no woman is a genius. Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly"

Dorian is glamorously and elegantly played by Emma McDonald , staying in character throughout although never quite capturing the depths of hedonism that the character decays to as "the ruin men brought upon their souls". 

Emily Scott and Eva Feiler have great fun with the rest of the characters and constantly engage the audience as narrators as they break the fourth wall and convey the different characters in Dorian's life with a change of accent and single prop very effectively. 

The production works on several levels , it tells the Wilde story with wit and humour , it celebrates the joy of theatre and offers aspirational role models to any young school actresses. It will surely delight audiences in the village Halls and schools on its tour and celebrates Wilde's writing.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★★
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