It seems astonishing now, almost one hundred and thirty years after publication, that Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was initially considered so shocking that despite having had around five hundred words excised from the text before it was printed that it was still seen as a danger to public morality.
That material having been reinstated in the interim, it is this complete version which has been adapted to the stage by Box Tale Soup in the trademark style with which they have graced previous Edinburgh Fringe seasons with Casting the Runes, Manalive! and Northanger Abbey, all of them excellent productions with a core cast assisted by a supporting roster of manipulated puppets.
It is interesting to consider how an audience of that apparently more easily outraged age would have responded to the opening scene of this particular production, as in matching black shirts and cravats the two men dance together in each other’s arm, one younger, one older, but both still handsome, but with increasingly sinister overtones in their movement as the musical accompaniment darkens.
They are Basil Hallward and Lord Henry Wotton, an artist and his patron, close friends who find that something has come between them, Basil’s new muse whose portrait he has been working on, a beautiful youth whom he playfully refuses to identify. “When I like someone immensely I never tell their names to anyone.”
With hindsight informed by the scandal which later engulfed Wilde and saw him tried and imprisoned for his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas under the charge of gross indecency, the repeating themes of Wilde’s works become apparent, their pronounced whimsy and affectation a distraction from the darkness which informs his veiled references, secrets and double lives where the public face and the private desires maintain prudent distance.
Indeed, The Picture of Dorian Gray, the playwright’s only novel, is possibly his darkest work, particularly in its completed version crammed with seduction, abandonment, suicide, betrayal, murder, blackmail, and an indulgence in sinful hedonism without apparent cost or repercussion for the source of it all, the eternally shining Dorian Gray whom all adore and wish to be close to.
Subject of rumours “vile and degraded,” as was Wilde himself, Dorian is told “you corrupt everyone with whom you become intimate,” but his strongest relationship is with his portrait which watches from the back of the stage, eyes strangely following the action and thriving on the narcissism which Dorian exudes as one by one the other picture frames are emptied.
With a rotating cast of four (company founders Noel Byrne and Antonia Christophers ably supported by Laura Darrall and Mark Collier), each of whom can take any of the parts to allow each performance to become a new variation of the text, there are equal parts of ambiguity and sensuality in Box Tale Soup’s interpretation which is faithful in tone while taking wide license in presentation.
Fuelled by a sadness slowly giving way to desperation, that comes to the fore in the actress Sybil with whom Dorian becomes infatuated then discards when his friends point out that beneath her beauty she is as shallow as a paper plate, and in the fickle and vain Dorian who changes his mind on a whim and tramples over others without regard.
A world of privilege where lateness is a great an offence as deceit, resplendent with the acidic froth of Wilde’s dialogue (“Anyone can be good in the country; there are no temptations there!”), the antecedent of Wilde’s tale is Faust, several centuries older, and while Gray himself may not have achieved the immortality he bargained for his notoriety may seemingly live forever in new echoes such as this.