Every bad deed scars us.
We may not realise it, we may not be able to see it, or we may simply be good at hiding it, but every cruel, selfish or evil act we commit corrupts us permanently.
That’s the core message of The Picture of Dorian Gray, the latest production by Tilted Wig (adapted and directed by Sean Aydon), based on the novel by Oscar Wilde.
And it’s conveyed brilliantly.
The story begins in the studio of gifted artist Basil Hallward, who is about to complete his best work yet, a portrait of the remarkably handsome young man Dorian Gray. His long-time friend Lord Henry Wotton agrees that it’s a masterpiece and expresses his desire to meet Dorian.
Understanding Henry’s hedonistic outlook, Basil is firmly against the meeting, worrying that the arrogant aristocrat will be a bad influence on his new muse.
He’s not wrong. As soon as Dorian arrives Henry starts preaching his self-indulgent world view, convincing him in a matter of minutes that there’s nothing more important than pleasure, youth and beauty.
Basil completes the painting, but Dorian is distraught, knowing that the figure depicted in the work will remain beautiful while he will have to suffer the indignity of ageing. In that moment, Dorian sincerely wishes it were the other way around, that the painting would bear the ravages of age and corruption instead of him.
Well, be careful what you wish for...
The Picture of Dorian Gray is a darkly funny and disturbing tale about people rejecting conventional morality in the pursuit of pleasure. More specifically, it is about how an individual could behave if he was apparently untouched by negative consequences.
The story gradually leaves reality behind as events become increasingly supernatural, but its anchored by a captivating lead performance by Gavin Fowler as Dorian. At first he presents an innocent young man who is likeable in spite of some rather childish and petulant outbursts. He then takes the character on an emotional journey, from being racked with guilt over a tragic event, to willingly purging himself of pity and shame. And Dorian doesn’t stop at passive, unfeeling cruelty either; he becomes actively evil, indulging in ever more extreme behaviour and pulling everyone around him into a nihilistic vortex.
Jonathan Wrather is very strong too as Lord Henry. Best known for playing pretty villainous characters in both Coronation Street and Emmerdale, Jonathan gives his pontificating toff a sinister edge, charming Dorian into a world of dark and dangerous fun. But, unlike Dorian, Henry ends up physically and emotionally affected, and Jonathan reveals his character’s inner turmoil beautifully in a scene where Dorian plays the piano.
Kate Dobson is great as the optimistic, romantic and sympathetic young actress Sybil Vane. At first, Sybil seems immature and naive, especially in a comical scene where she loses the ability to act during a Shakespeare play. But she could, arguably, be the most grounded character in the show, rejecting the artifice of the theatre once she experiences true love and passion. It’s a stark contrast to Dorian who prizes unnatural perfection over the awkward reality of life as it is. Kate’s ability to take her character from the height of happiness to the depths of despair in a short time onstage is particularly impressive.
Adele James gives two effective performances as both Catherine Vane and Ellen Campbell. The first is the concerned sister of Sybil, who almost gives in completely to a furious desire for revenge. The second is a medical professional who is torn between her terror of Dorian’s lifestyle and the fear of what he might do to her if she refuses to obey him.
Phoebe Pryce plays two memorable characters as well: the elegant and alluring Lady Victoria Wotton and the desperate and degraded woman in one of Dorian’s favourite drug dens. Both are brought to life vividly and it’s easy to forget that it’s the same performer as Phoebe disappears into the drastically different roles.
Samuel Townsend is good too in three smaller but engaging roles: a boy who is smitten with Dorian, Romeo in the aforementioned Shakespeare play and Dorian’s butler.
However, perhaps it’s Daniel Goode who leaves the strongest impression. He really makes us feel Basil Hallward’s struggle to be moral, not just in his unrelenting politeness and kindness, but in the tension between his intense feelings for Dorian and his awareness of what is proper in 19th century England. He conveys a sense of crushing shame about his instincts, which to a 21st century audience seems silly, but in Wilde’s time could have been deeply distressing for someone to admit to themselves. Daniel doesn’t just offer us scenes of restrained emotions either. In the play’s best moment (in my opinion), Dorian reveals the painting after years of wrongdoing and Daniel gets to cut loose. The painting is sensibly only represented by a clear sheet of plastic, so Daniel’s reaction is the only indication we get of its truly horrific nature...and he delivers.
Overall, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a striking Gothic horror that offers plenty of style to accompany its substance.
The set looks like it’s decaying, with paint peeling away from the walls, and there’s a persistent sense of dread thanks to a soundtrack of deep electronic rumbles, which are sometimes only a low hum in the background.
The style does go a little too far in one scene where masked figures dance in slow-motion to some pounding rave music, but I think the aim is to convey the decadence and corruption of Dorian’s life without getting distastefully graphic.
And that approach works well for the most part. This production knows when to get nasty and when to pull its punches, when to let Wilde’s witty dialogue take over and when to keep quiet.
The result is a clever, frightening and effective show that explores the darker aspects of the human mind and raises plenty of troubling questions to think about long after its conclusion.
Whether you believe in its ideas about the human soul or not, The Picture of Dorian Gray will leave its mark on you.
This Horsham District Year of Culture event is at The Capitol until Saturday, May 4.
Call the box office on 01403 750220 or visit www.thecapitolhorsham.com.