Fresh from a run at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, this reworking of Oscar Wilde’s classic novel (one of four permutations using the same cast of four) comes to London with a female Dorian.
While this works well with the dominant relationship between the beautiful and unspoiled Miss Gray and the dissolate Sir Henry, it doesn’t quite come off in the section concerning Sibyl Vane, the teenage actress Dorian promises to marry and then callously casts off.
Lesbian relationships were problematic at the time (see Anne Lister as one example, in the current TV series Gentleman Jack) and would have caused social ostracism, but there could have been no legal contract of matrimony, and Gray’s nickname of ‘Prince Charming’ makes little sense when she is a woman.
Basil Hallward’s infatuation with his artistic muse, though, is clearly indicated and the use of sound and light (floating microphones that echo and distort, bulbs that flicker and illuminate) is well done, as is the minimal set – two mirrors, one depicting the infamous painting which is represented by illuminated water, more red as the years progress; one depicting reality, with one moment where Dorian sees through her reflection right into her soul.
Wilde’s seminal queer text stands up to redefinition, and in turning Adrian Singleton to Adriana and Alan Campbell to Allie, it puts the female gaze centre stage. It may be gruesome to think of a young man taking a life of debauchery, but a young lady, with all her refinements and natural delicacy (in 19th century tradition) feels much worse.
I found all four performances (Richard Keighley’s Henry, Helen Reuben’s Dorian, Augustina Seymour’s Sibyl, Stanton Wright’s Basil) very strong, and although the ghostly narrative of unconnected words from characters on the fringes of the scene felt odd at first, they gained power as the piece progressed.
Other combinations in the quartet of plays allow Keightley and Seymour, and Reuben and Wright, to swap roles. Picture B, with a female Henry and male Sybil, sounds particularly intriguing, although really the play (or prose) is the thing.