Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray
"McDonald dominates the stage"
A fortnight has passed since Owen Horsley’s Salomé (RSC) finished playing in Stratford-upon-Avon. This week the director’s love affair with Wilde continues, as he stages The Picture of Dorian Gray at Newbury’s endearing Watermill Theatre. For Salomé Horsley flouted tradition, casting male actor Matthew Tennyson as the princess Salomé. For Dorian Gray he also goes against the grain, using an all-female cast. The versatile Eva Feiler and Emily Stott each play an assortment of characters, and Emma McDonald captivates as Dorian Gray, in Phoebe Eclair-Powell’s brilliant and humorous adaptation of Wilde’s gothic novel.
A simple white frame is integral to the three-woman show, serving as the picture frame, a number of doors, and a theatre box at various points in the story. It is, as it was described in the post-show Q&A, really a fourth actor. In the Q&A, Horsley pointed out the benefits of the anonymous and empty structure. Not only, he said, can it be used to represent different objects, but it also means – insofar as its role as a picture frame goes – that the audience don’t have an actual picture to look at. This escapes the technical challenge of having to physically make Basil’s painting of Dorian gradually more decrepit throughout the show. It also requires viewers to imagine the ugliness of the portrait, using the words provided by the actors as guidance. It’s possibly the most effective way to do things, for a mind might conjure up something far more repulsive than, say, a projection might.
Feiler and Stott, as well as portraying all the characters that permeate Dorian’s life, are also the narrators. Funny moments arrive when they are in this capacity; here, they are deliberately a little scatty and quite charming – with a lovely chemistry between them. They break out of playing Wilde’s creations and into their narrator roles often, providing light relief from the darkness of the plot. There is potential danger in doing this: you can do it too much and lose the intensity of the tale – but here the balance is just right.
McDonald dominates the stage as the sinful and murderous Dorian, capturing the arrogance and cruelty of the character – with a voice that penetrates, and a physicality that denotes power. The character’s slaughter of Basil is very well done; the production does not risk trying to make it realistic in such an intimate space, choosing instead to have no contact between the two characters, and just involve a stabbing movement and healthy dosage of blood. Stylised, gothic, theatrical – it’s a most marvellous murder.
Given the fact the show is about to embark on a tour to schools and village halls, it has to be simple in its set, sound, and lighting – which actually gives the whole thing a welcome rawness, and accentuates the skills of the performers, who have no all-shiny tech to hide behind. Original in its script at the same time as being faithful to Wilde, bar one or two line slip-ups, Dorian Gray is faultless. In fact, it’s nearly worth killing for.
The Picture of Dorian Gray plays at The Watermill Theatre until 23 September. It will also be touring to schools 25 September-14 October. For more information please call 01635 570927.
Images © Philip Tull
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