MOST PEOPLE will already be familiar with the dark, mysterious details. No matter how many years go by, or how debauched and insincere the actions become, the outward display remains handsomely unchanged. That, too frequently, is our experience of Oscar Wilde in revival, whose comedies are routinely embalmed in period frocks and crystal-cut epigrams while their souls seem to wither somewhere out of view.
The writer and director Neil Bartlett, whose first contemporary reappraisal of Wilde was his celebrated 1994 adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray for the Lyric, Hammersmith, has long been aware of the challenge. Lean too heavily on Wilde’s surface and you dishonour the subtext; make his subtext explicit and you lose its subversion.
Bartlett’s new adaptation for the Abbey may be less radical than his first, in which certain former acquaintances of Wilde’s gather to read the novel and are subsumed into its fiction, but it is refreshingly and illuminatingly unconventional.
Leaving the characters, story and language recognisably intact, it is, to some extent, a faithful dramatisation of the novel. Frank McCusker’s fabulously understated Basil has bared his soul (and his obsession) in a portrait of the beautiful, young Dorian (Tom Canton, making a persuasive professional debut), whom Jasper Britton’s brilliantly Mephistophelean Lord Henry seems to corrupt with just the offer of a cigarette. Soon Dorian has traded his soul for eternal youth, a libertine in a world without consequence, his sins borne only by his deteriorating portrait.
The frame that Bartlett constructs, similar to the approach of his 2008 Abbey production of An Ideal Husband, is rivetingly theatrical. Designer Kandis Cook exposes the stage, emphasising the artifice of Gray’s society, against a corresponding glow of footlights and the recorded burble of audience laughter (“Dreadfully superficial,” the socialites say of the theatre, not entirely disapprovingly). Onstage microphones take some of the affected trill out of Wilde’s witticisms to reveal a compellingly dark sense. While, lining around an unadorned playing space, the ensemble become both chorus and onstage audience: here, everything is a pose or a performance. Everybody is watching.
“You are what the age is searching for,” Henry tells Dorian, “and what it is afraid it has found.” Bartlett is neither coy nor sensational about the covertly gay text – when Britton’s silken corrupter roughly kisses Canton’s dandy, it comes as a relief. Instead, he plumbs the story for more resonant depths, the shiver of its prurience for youth and the subordination of morality to a pleasing surface. “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors,” wrote Wilde in the novel’s introduction, and although Bartlett makes one late, cheesy concession to gothic shock, the bigger surprise is how frequently he lets us see the ravages of Dorian’s enchanted portrait. It is as astonishing and horrifying as you can imagine.
Until November 17th
- Peter Crawley