The Picture of Dorian Gray, Bread & Roses Theatre - Review

Using Oscar Wilde's famous story as a jumping point for discussing human nature, John Foster has updated and expanded upon the time-honoured tale, and fashioned a contemporary cautionary tale of existential proportions. Eschewing the secondary characters and moral didacticism from the Victorian era, Charmaine K Parkin’s production concentrates on the psychological aspects of Dorian Gray (Alessandro Babalola) – in particular his duality.

In the original story, Basil Hallwood was a painter who placed great importance on beauty and was mesmerised by Dorian’s visage. His acquaintance, Henry Wotton, was an Epicurian by nature, delighting in hedonism and who had a long-term effect on Dorian. Recast as women, Basel (Anna Newcome) and Henri (Amelia Gardham) still battle for Dorian’s ‘soul’, but the rather than be peripheral players in his life, they are the play’s emotional core.

In the first Act, Foster gives us a big clue to understanding his version of Dorian and unlocking the play’s themes. While walking along the beach, Dorian explains to Basel his affinity with Albert Camus’ L’Etranger (The Stranger). For those of you who don’t know, most of the events in the book follow the protagonist’s emotional detachment to his surroundings and other people responding to this. In Foster’s play, Basel is also transfixed by Dorian, but through her love for him and the training she gives in photography, she offers him some direction in life – as close and ‘normal’ a life as someone of his persuasion can be.

Sensing Henri, Basel’s acquaintance, to be a ‘kindred spirit’, Dorian is drawn to her. Despite any residual feelings of loyalty or affection for Basel, Dorian finds time spent with Henri as addictive as any drug and unable to stay away. His former career as a photographer takes a backseat while he pursues a life of crime and nihilism with Henri. There is one thing that still continues – in the news, the corpses left behind by the serial killer known as the Rain Maker haven’t abated. Quite the opposite in fact...

Playing someone who is ‘good’ isn’t necessarily easy for an actor, but Newcome (who also serves as the play’s producer in London) not only made Basel a ‘decent’ but charismatic character, she made her fun, open-hearted and a good listener – qualities which even the most hardened of hearts would succumb to over time. Meanwhile Gardham effortlessly channels her inner femme fatale, her allure stemming as much from her philosophy that there are no rules, as her physical beauty.

Throughout the play, the dichotomy of Dorian's nature is foremost on our minds, with Basel serving as his ‘angel’/conscience and Henri as his ‘devil’/source of temptation. However, biblical imagery aside, I found this version of Dorian Gray to be less about Faustian overtures and more about other facets of Victorian culture: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Jack The Ripper.

In today’s world, when the media describes people as ‘evil’, asides from causing willful harm to others, the term is almost always associated with those who don’t (or chose not to) have empathy with others. So much of what is wrong with society stems from the lack of empathy and in Foster’s and Parkin's hands, the metaphor is perfectly illustrated.

© Michael Davis

The Picture of Dorian Gray ran at the Bread & Roses Theatre from Tuesday 30th June to Saturday 4th July 2015

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