A hypnotic portrait of beauty in decay - Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray in Eastbourne

Oscar Wilde's The Picture Of Dorian Gray SUS-190602-102438001
Oscar Wilde's The Picture Of Dorian Gray SUS-190602-102438001

Classic theatre at the Devonshire Park this week, where Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray is a hypnotic portrait of beauty in decay.

Tilted Wig – what a lovely name for a theatre company – fully matches its usual excellent standards. From a stylish and literate programme, to a strikingly atmospheric set, beautifully and cleverly lit. From costumes that aptly reflect characters, to artful little touches of direction that keep the audience intrigued. And above all, flawless acting.

The Picture Of Dorian Gray

The Picture Of Dorian Gray

So what, as they say, is not to like? Well, the play itself is no light and frothy evening’s entertainment. The protagonists are self-absorbed and heavy with angst, and the story leads grimly and remorselessly on towards tragedy. For the audience, never mind for the actors, it is a demanding and even exhausting journey.

Oscar Wilde is arguably at his best in the witty, sharply observed comedy of Earnest or Lady Windermere. His own personal life was defined by his sexuality, and also hallmarked by brave and sometimes reckless defiance of authority which, outrageously, sent Wilde to jail. And this provocative story must, for Oscar, have formed a statement of faith.

Dorian Gray is youthful and beautiful, and his physical beauty is captured in a painstaking portrait by painter and admirer Basil Hallward. But the beauty is transient and the young man’s quest for fulfilment is hounded and haunted by that physical transience.

Seven actors not only tell that story but utterly inhabit the parts. In the title role Gavin Fowler is mesmerisingly good. Whether revelling in society life or panicking at his own mortality, Gavin’s playing is sensual and expressive. As artist Hallward, Daniel Goode grapples agonisingly with the love that dares not speak its name, and evokes pity if not sympathy.

Dorian’s patron Lord Henry Wotton is perfectly judged by Jonathan Wrather, sliding from assured aristocrat to decaying socialite. Phoebe Price deliciously presents Lady Victoria Wotton as Henry’s mirror image, dissolute behind the suave facade.

Kate Dobson convinces in a more sympathetic role, the naive young actress Sybil whose romance with Dorian is as tragically brief as it is sudden and surprising. Adele James brims with youthful talent, both as Sybil’s concerned sister Catherine and as the enigmatic Ellen, part medic and pathologist and part foil to the rapidly dissolving Dorian.

Samuel Townsend completes the company as manservant, boy and as a gloriously inept Romeo. In acting terms, the whole is at least the sum of the parts and there are moments of gripping intensity, as the story steadily builds and finally lurches to a melodramatic denouement.

Sean Aydon directs with an intelligent, hands-on reading of both plot and themes. The story is long but generally keeps up momentum, and there are great moments of tableau. Perhaps this story is not one of Victorian morals and conventions. Perhaps Dorian Gray is an admonition to us all, about painted beauty and the ugliness beneath. By Kevin Anderson.

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