The yearning for eternal youth whatever the price is the potent myth and moral behind the portrait that ages and becomes dissipated by the vices of the sitter while he retains the untrammelled beauty of youth and innocence.
Oscar Wilde's novel was a succès de scandale, not least for its thinly veiled homo-eroticism. In defence, the author pointed to the moral of the tale - the downward spiral of his protagonist. Ironically, thanks to this book, Wilde's own life was to imitate his art. His Dorian-like nemesis Lord Alfred Douglas read it seven times before seeking to meet its author.
The first version of Wilde's story was published in 1890, and this strikingly designed production evokes the decadent sophistication of those times as soon as the lights go up on Philip Whitcomb's elegant mirrored salon. It's set off by sinister black ruched drapes and complemented by a screen for the back projections currently so popular among theatre designers. But, at the start, the eponymous larger-than-life portrait is centre stage, an eloquent metaphor for the gothic tale of dissolution and downfall that follows.
"The love that dare not speak its name" consumes Simon Ward's slow-burning artist Basil Hallward. For Robert Powell's saturnine Lord Henry Wotton, it's more a delicious diversion, the lever that enables him to dominate Dorian Gray as surely as Powell's aristocratic authority dominates the stage.
Playwright Trevor Baxter, who's brought the novel to the stage here, savours Wilde's wit, and Powell in particular delivers epigrams with deadly accuracy. His Wotton dismisses women and especially marriage with a well-aimed "Marriage is a peace treaty that allows two warring factions to re-arm". And Nick Waring's golden Dorian is a quick learner. He draws an audible gasp from the audience when his ardour for the sensitive young actress Sybil Vane gives way to spiteful petulance - the first hint of his rake's progress to ruin.
The glimpses of life backstage among the troupe of travelling players led by Sybil's mother afford the high point of Baxter's adaptation. Elizabeth Power's fading leading lady perfectly pitches Mrs Vanes' unwitting jokes on herself and Clare Wilkie's daisy-fresh Sybil is convincing as she wilts under Dorian's cruelty.
It's a challenge to shrink the wide canvas of a novel to the essential strands of the plot. Although Elijah Mojinsky's direction ensures clear storytelling, I did feel that the evening lacked momentum after the interval, despite the inexorable descent into hell we were witnessing.
- Judi Herman (reviewed at Windsor's Theatre Royal)