Dublin Theatre Festival: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Neil Bartlett's adaptation of the Picture of Dorian Gray at the Abbey Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Neil Bartlett's adaptation of the Picture of Dorian Gray at the Abbey Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of the Dorian Gray (1890) is not just about one man’s narcissistic obsession with youth and beauty, let alone the twists and turns of socially policed homoerotic desire. It’s also a book that explores the difficulties and dangers of representation, such as when a man presents himself other than who he really is; or that man is the subject of a painting; or even when that process is communicated in literary form. While Neil Bartlett’s adaptation for the Abbey Theatre is certainly aware of the centrality of form to Wilde’s novel, he stages a world where the architecture of representation is completely laid bare, exposing everyone and everything from the outset. But with nothing concealed or nowhere to hide, you might find yourself wondering what Dorian Gray has left to give? 

Most of the action directly involving Dorian (Canton) takes place centre stage. From the side-lines, speaking into standing mics, two performers (O’Toole and Byrne) narrate his story. Occasionally they are joined by a group of suited young men (markedly speaking with Dublin accents) and glamorous older women who are both part of Dorian’s wider social sphere, and ours. They take part in the main action, but also step back from it, forming a shifty chorus of complicit participants as well as critical witnesses.  As the performance progresses, and years ostensibly fly by, these figures seem to increasingly invade Dorian’s inner sanctum, until both the room for privacy and representation are eroded. Dorian destroys Basil’s (McCusker) ominous portrait of himself, and the stage is taken over by actors.

While this approach to the text makes sense, and is even conceptually interesting, it struggles to make for compelling theatre. For an audience to really invest in the disintegration of Dorian’s world, we have to first believe that his allure and vanity are a threat to himself and to others. One of the reasons that Dorian works well as a novel is that we can conjure the man to match our own desires: he is a hook onto which we might hang our desires. Although the large canvass on which his portrait is supposedly painted is blacked out here, the man himself materialises, and inevitably suffers from the pressure that fantasy enactment brings. My Dorian is not your Dorian, etc. 

Playing the lead role, Canton is blonde, tall and lithe; his coiffed hair, alabaster skin and vividly glossed lips setting him apart from the ensemble. In being so over-styled, to a contemporary eye at least, he is almost a caricature of a Victorian dandy. And even in the world of the play, he doesn’t do anything in particular to beguile Basil and his mentor Lord Henry (Britton). Rather they fall for him immediately and inexplicably, and the audience is expected to go along with it.

The production’s response to dealing with the problem of incarnating Dorian is to both enact his story and to tell it, neither fully committing to the past nor to the present; never becoming a period drama or a fully-fledged contemporary adaptation. But diffuse the novel’s conflict by turning its mysterious protagonist into flesh; let the ensemble know, and tell us, that Dorian has murdered; and foreground all the homoerotic impulses – Dorian and Lord Henry kiss – then there are really not many directions left in which the production might go, apart from making a performance about the materiality of theatre itself. Such a production, where surface plays over substance, is traditionally the space of camp, but despite Cook’s beautiful stage and costume design, and some tantalising Gothic flourishes enhanced by Davey’s lighting design, images don’t shimmer provocatively for very long here. The meta-theatrical devices, led by a droning chorus and a fairly lacklustre, imprecise ensemble, sap vitality rather than excite and share it.

As the national theatre’s centrepiece for this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival, it’s hard to see what The Picture of Dorian Gray brings to the conversation. It’s an odd choice, but also a half-baked realisation. Bartlett struggles to make the novel’s preoccupation with youth, beauty, art and sexuality especially interesting or even relevant.

Fintan Walsh lectures in theatre and performance at Birkbeck, University of London

  • Review
  • Theatre

Dublin Theatre Festival: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, adapted by Neil Bartlett

27 Sept-17 Nov 2012

Produced by The Abbey Theatre
In The Abbey Theatre

Adapted and Directed by Neil Bartlett
Set and Costume Design: Kandis Cook
Lighting Design: Chris Davey
Sound Design: Ivan Birthistle and Vincent Doherty
Cast includes: Jane Brennan, Jasper Britton, Gerard Byrne, Tom Canton, Aaron Heffernan, Emmet Kirwan, Andrew Macklin, Charlotte McCurry, Frank McCusker, Lise Ann McLaughlin, Bairbre NĂ­ Chaoimh, Kate O'Toole, Michael Sheehan, Ali White and Susannah de Wrixon