BWW Review: PICTURES OF DORIAN GRAY, Jermyn Street Theatre
They examine the original text and extrapolate its myth, stripping it down to its core and leaving the soul of the story bare for everyone to see. Shaw becomes one with Wilde, using the elegance of his seminal material to write a poetic play that might as well have come from the man himself, while Littler orchestrates the script with elegant passion.
Pictures of Dorian Gray is an exercise in style, and a marvellous one too. The director plays with gender and perception, curating four different shows that are the same in essence. Picture A juxtaposes a male Dorian (Stanton Wright) and Henry (Richard Keightley) with female Basil (Helen Reuben) and Sibyl (Augustina Seymour); Picture B reverses Henry (Seymour) and Sibyl (Keightley); Picture C sees a female Dorian (Reuben) confronted by male Basil (Wright) and Henry (Keightley); and Picture D switches Henry (Seymour) and Sibyl (Keightley) keeping Reuben as the protagonist.
The individual shows are each gorgeous and magical portrayals of a well-known story. An ever-present sound design by Matt Eaton haunts the scene, turning images into dreamlike sequences. He installs a compelling musical trajectory that fluctuates from delicate music boxes to shrieks and from whispers and sighs to vibrating growls. William Reynolds curates the set and lighting: he hangs round incandescent bulbs from the flies and places imposing frames and ingenious gimmicks around the stage, all shrouded in dark paint with white, lighter accent strokes.
Emily Stuart clothes the actors splendidly, reflecting the gold and black tones of the larger picture with velvet, beautiful golden trimmings, bejewelled lapels, and heaps of class all around her creations. The show works, as a whole, primarily on imagination: from a script heavily reliant on ideas and concepts to the singular details in the direction, the company lets the public put the pieces together to reveal the bigger picture.
The text remains the same, with obvious pronoun changes to suit the actors. Thus, Littler kickstarts a multi-faceted reflection that goes beyond the elements that strictly relate to the alterations in gender. After having seen multiple versions, it becomes exceptionally clear that it's not solely a matter of identity. The performers all have different takes on the roles they portray, therefore that aspect alone is a single, crucial change in the delivery of the characters.
The audience themselves are also central in the reception of the play. The variations the performances display are not factually in the difference in gender dynamics but, rather, in the way the onlookers recognises them: it's not a matter of how the figures meet each other, but how the audience meet them and how their own selves are projected onto the scene.
Littler pinpoints the neutrality of words and the importance of context and inflections. He strays from thrusting any agenda onto the crowd, instead offering refined storytelling with clever theatrical artifice. A seductive charge runs through the piece independently from the version that's being shown.
The substance of the story isn't lost in the aesthetic qualities the director gives to it: every movement the actors make, every missed kiss is carefully calibrated towards the soft landing of the tale. Looks and glances are essential: Wright and Keightley's brief exchanges in the presence of Reuben's Dorian mean something different altogether compared to Seymour and Reuben's with Wright's character because of the societal implications the third party (the audience) provides.
Reuben's Dorian is subtly coquettish but cutting where Wright's is cruel and merciless; they never drift away from the novel's portrayal of the character, but they each add distinct qualities, whether it's a feminine slant or forlorn longing for youth. They're drawn through the storyline by Shaw's opulent narrative descriptions in Keightley and Seymour's hands.
Their contributions have the power to tip the whole dynamic, playing once again with the audience's perception of it. Outside forces determine whether Lord Henry's influence over a young man or woman should be more or less alarming when the character is portrayed by an actor or an actress, engaging further discussions in the light of modern feminist movements.
Seymour is casually outrageous as she waltzes around the stage as Lord Wotton, her wrists and hands adorned with classy yet flashy jewellery. Keightley's is, instead, more reserved and piercing, a quality he swaps with the actress when she plays Sibyl instead. They establish a different kind of ambiguity in their relationships with Dorian, depending on the combinations: the weight of Lady Henry's advice to a female Dorian shifts when her character becomes a man, naturally turning the protégé and confidante link into suspicious agency and abuse of power.
Dorian's subjugation to the Yellow Book somehow lands differently too when Reuben portrays him; and an older, male Sibyl gives yet another specific slant to the story as a whole. There's nothing strained or contrived in the gender-swapping experiment in general - even though this last mentioned instance seems to be the slightly odd one, with Keightley consistently being referred to as a 17-year-old "child" - as the characters adapt well to the interior changes required by the project.
Although there is no apparent agency in Littler's direction, by simply presenting four different versions with the same blocking and script, he indirectly emphasises the function of gender roles, centuries of internalised preconceptions, and the perception of their expectations quite brilliantly.
Beauty and art flow throughout the play, turning into leitmotifs and revealing hidden metaphors and agency. References to Narcissus, Caliban, and the subjugation to artistry and allure become interwoven in the writing as well as in the visuals, turning the whole narration into an instinctive experience on both sides of the fourth wall.
What Littler does quite ingeniously here is portraying images of infectious depravity without any other forceful objective, letting the audience draw their own conclusions from these thoughtful, exquisitely presented variations.
Photo Credit: SR Taylor Photography