Sitting down in the Pilch Studio, a favourite space for the more bonkers end of Oxford drama, I was mildly disappointed to see a sparse set comprising of the familiar chaise longue and hat stand, which barely ventured onto the thrust stage. The tuning of a string quartet and a classy programme settled me down, as I waited with high hopes for a score that, as the programme heavily emphasises, was composed across the Atlantic.
The American score opens the show in the dark, which then gives way to a very basic lighting state. This is varied perhaps four or five times across the two hours’ traffic, a disappointing use of a space and stage format that encourages inventive lighting. Almost exclusively blackout transitions were only sometimes accompanied by the quartet. This unnecessarily disrupted the pacing of the show – the set changed just once with the addition of three sheets – and while the live music was fun, I’d have liked to see it mixed with programmed sound to ground the action. The quartet, a little shaky to start with, had high points, and the music is atmospheric, if a little repetitive. Particularly effective were a theatre scene, with the band relishing the representation of a terrible orchestra, and the continuous playing across scenes of high emotion (see if you can guess when the murder’s coming).
Alice Taylor’s direction is particularly sensitive to text, and she found nuance in her competent, inclusive casting choices. Genderblind casting was used to excellent effect, bringing a freshness to the script and highlighting Wilde’s once-censored exploration of transgressive sexuality. Taylor’s blocking, however, was disappointing, missing easy hits with poor attention to sightlines and a limited use of the space. Character work also seemed to be lacking; the action was sometimes let down by inconsistent performances and a lack of attention to tone.
Basil Hallward is played to powerful effect by standout first year Chloe Taylor. Her performance was warm and sympathetic, and an excellent foil to Thea Keller’s Dorian. Keller unfortunately seemed to struggle to pitch his performance in the first half, which wasn’t helped by his near-constant delivery to the floor. However, this gave way to a twitchy intensity after the interval that brought depth and energy to the show. Taylor and Keller’s standoff at the act’s climax was a truly compelling moment.
Carolina Earle as Henry Wotton often lost her pithy lines in the adoption of a strange voice and hammy acting; regardless, every time she lost me she managed to bring me back. She was not immune to the lack of consistent physicality that affected the whole cast, but seemed to fight against it, and portrayed an entertaining monster. Also deserving of praise is Sarah Dittrich as the Portrait – their face acting was subtle and genuinely creepy, although I wish it hadn’t been marred by the strange make-up supposed to signal Dorian’s decline.
The portrait is created using a two-way mirror, a rather laboured interpretation of the story’s moral. I can’t help feeling that a more traditional one-way portrait would have worked rather better. Reflecting the audience and actors was distracting, but the sudden appearance of Dittrich’s side-lit face was genuinely frightening, and woefully underused. In fact, the aesthetic of this moment gave a glimpse of what the show could have been with a little more attention to detail. Generally solid period costumes were disrupted by trainers, stripy socks, and hotel bath robes – little of the luxury of Dorian’s “wild joys and wild sins” (pun, I suspect, very much intended) was conveyed other than through the script.
This script sticks religiously to Wilde’s much-loved novel, which makes it by turns funny, serious, and downright frustrating. The novel’s inherent theatricality is hiding in there somewhere, but this is a work that needs heavy editing for the stage, playing at times like a Greek tragedy as much of the action is reported rather than acted out; the potential for a bolder adaptation was missed. Flashbacks, breakdowns and crowd scenes were backed uninspiringly by a chorus who, despite long periods in the dressing room, didn’t alter their character costumes. This made for confusing viewing, and conjured up ghosts where I think none were intended.
Overall, this is a production worth a viewing – although you’ll have to be quick as it’s selling fast. Greater attention to detail would have been a big boost to this show, as would a few judicious edits, but a generally good cast and well-deployed Wilde combine to make it an entertaining two hours.