Gray @ Hope Street Theatre; 23/11/18; REVIEW
“This version is unlike any I have seen before” says Decima Theatre’s Artistic Director: Joseph Mitchley (if he does say so himself). So, does this latest incarnation of the man who swapped his soul and morality for a lifetime of youth and shallow vanity live up to Oscar Wilde’s classic novel? Or does it set itself aside for all the wrong reasons?
Ever wonder at what point plays of the Shakespearean era stopped being regurgitated as old-timey, poncey nonsense with men in breeches and large codpieces? I think maybe that now needs to happen with The Picture of Dorian Gray. The Oscar Wilde classic has been retold many a time throughout Liverpool and beyond this past decade – even being made into a major feature film – but none that I have heard of in recent times have ever decided to change the timeline of Dorian Gray and make the piece more relevant. And I think that this production more so than any I can remember, highlights that.
This is just a humble reviewer’s opinion. But to me, a text like this is just screaming to be updated. Modern audiences nowadays watch enough film, TV and theatre to know when a text/play doesn’t fit into the modern world in its original format. With that information to hand, pieces that are set in the 19th century always seem to have something lacking that stops the audience from connecting with the world properly – and they should know, they’re the ones it is being performed for after all.
On the positive side of this piece though, the physicality and movement within the piece can be nothing short of brilliant at points. Some might argue that at times it was unnecessarily shoe-horned in. But for me, it was just the right amount to set scenes, create atmosphere and to use for comedic effect.
The use of multi-role was also pretty impressive to be fair. Apart from Benjamin Gray (Dorian Gray – no relation, sadly), every other actor in this play takes up the part of at least two characters throughout the running time. Given that this is Decima Theatre’s first production, this is both a smart move in terms of what they can resource in terms of actors, as well as also doubling up as coming across as being technically inventive with how the play is being directed, alongside how it achieves a fully fleshed out world.
Throughout the play, I kept wanting to shout from the audience at what I was watching, because it was so close to being there… and at times it genuinely was very close to being a good standard. There were so many moments in the piece in which I could feel what the actors were trying to do on stage and what the director was trying to convey. But it just doesn’t get there. It certainly tries to, don’t get me wrong. But a lot of the scenes are just missing a piece or two of their puzzle, and so do not have as much of an effect on the audience as initially desired.
The driving force in this novel is and always has to be Lord Henry Wotton. His warped and pseudo-intellectual take on society and charisma are what moulds the young mind of Dorian and convinces him to indulge in his deepest and darkest desires. Without that happening to Gray, we see the transformation of his character, from bright eyed and bushy tailed youth to emotionless wretch in a 20 year-old’s body… But we simply don’t buy into it as there’s nothing there to push him into that transformation. So for me, Wotton as a character just doesn’t achieve that on the whole.
Wotton should have an edge about him to make him stand out to Gray. He should have an air about him that makes what he says as irresistible as Gray finds Sybil. But sadly, this just doesn’t happen. He comes across as a cocky know-it-all who doesn’t love his wife, huffs at every idea of a social interaction and in essence seems to believe he is above every other character in the play. So how as an audience are we to believe that it is this person who charms Gray with the idea of self-indulgence, to not give a damn about his actions (and morality as a result)? If anything, he comes across as a warning of what will happen to Gray if he takes the same path, much like Marley’s Ghost in A Christmas Carol. In short, I found myself loathing Wotton and wanting Gray to spend more time with Basil. As he seems to charm Gray initially rather than be so brash and obnoxiously blunt from the outset. Whether this is a directing flaw or an actor’s one, I can’t be sure. But should there be a resurrection of this piece, then it definitely needs addressing on both ends.
Which brings me nicely onto analysing the acting in Gray. So, without further ado, let’s start with the man himself: Dorian Gray. He is played by his namesake Benjamin Gray, who has a bloody hard job to be fair. He has to navigate a person’s morality in a time when the idea of morals only seems to go as far as to maintain your status in social class. Benjamin has some genuine moments of sincerity throughout the performance and offers himself as a beacon through which to navigate the play. On the other hand though, I found that his interpretation of the character was too cold, far too early. Dorian Gray is initially a warm character that wins the hearts of everyone he see’s with his beauty and charm… and I simply didn’t see that side of him throughout the early stages of the performance as he seemed relatively cold and isolated from the outset. Which only changed – albeit fleetingly – when he met Sybil
Wotton is played by Matthew Thomasson who is a loud and obnoxious presence throughout this piece. His interpretation was that of an educated man in the 19th century that thought he was at the pinnacle of sceptical thinking. However, I feel that it was the not the best interpretation to take. As said above, this character is the one who should be the charming devil on Dorian Gray’s shoulder. The one who pushes him further and further into debauchery and bad decisions. But Wotton just doesn’t feel like that character to me under Thomasson. His interpretation looked like no matter what was going on, he was always above Gray in the pecking order and always seemingly mocking his naivety. When in actuality I felt like he should have been the one who is slowly – unbeknownst to himself and Gray – prodding him to the point of no return.
A final side note is that there is no ageing in Thomasson’s character to be seen. At one point he remarks that the story has progressed over 18 years and if I hadn’t had been told at that point I would have been absolutely none the wiser! There is no physical ageing in his characterisation and this isolates the audiences belief into the world of the piece.
James Dornan is a warm-hearted spirit in a cold-hearted world as Basil, the artist who ties all of this story together. He is noticeable when he walks on stage and has a poise and stillness about him that is often under-played in local theatre. I’d like to see him bring that warmness along a bit earlier on to juxtapose with Wotton’s cold and brash outlook. But other than that, Dornan does pretty well in attempting to be the angel and guiding light in Dorian Gray’s ever darkening world.
Then we have Emma Webber as the charming and lovely Sybil. Her characterisation for her most notable role in this piece is commendable and she makes a great use of the emotionality of Sybil once Dorian has suddenly turned so cold towards her. Webber is also really useful as an ensemble character as she brings life to some scenes that have the potential to be awfully slow through her use of subtly livening the action from the background. I would say that a bit more attention to detail should be paid to her death scene as Sybil (spoiler alert) as it felt awfully rushed and somewhat like a ‘B’ Movie death. But that may well be down to the directing as much as it is the acting.
Charlotte Cumming as Victoria and other ensemble parts arguably has one of the hardest roles in the entire production. She doesn’t really have a major out and out role like the rest of the cast. But she does seem to be on stage for a large portion of the play. Her multi-role is pretty impressive although I feel that given the little wiggle room she has in what she has to play with, her characters can, at times, have the same mannerisms.
Finally, we have the artistic director himself: Joseph Mitchley. Mitchley plays the portrait of Dorian Gray and as such reflects the morality of his decisions and the transformation of his soul throughout the play. He also doubles up as a member of the ensemble cast to bring life to characters that fleet in and out of the piece. It felt like Mitchley essentially needs to switch his intentions for both of these sets of characters. I felt that in his ensemble work he was often doing too much and at times hijacking the scene from it’s original intentions and main narrative. Conversely, when he was the more important character that represented the portrait, he sometimes let the scene pass him by and got lost in the action. It’s clear that the skills he needs to correct these things are in his repertoire as he uses them for the opposing parts he plays. He just needs to fine-tune his approach to his parts in the scene and he will have a much smoother time on stage.
So, the long and short of it. At times Gray has the potential to be brilliant, but it does fall wide of the mark. Not across the board, but certainly in terms of it being unpolished in some directional decisions and its character’s intentions. It has wonderful elements of physicality and transitions that lift it and give it well-timed bursts of energy. But it needs some more time back in the rehearsal room if it is to be revived and brought back to the theatre.
Theatrevolt rating: 2 / 5