The Picture of Dorian Gray -Wilde’s message reimagined. (Theatre Review)
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Genesian Theatre from 16 Feb through to 19 March
In 1890 when Oscar Wilde wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray it was only four years after Nietzsche wrote Beyond Good and Evil, the scandalous text that criticised philosophers, poets writers and moralists of not recognising that good and evil are two sides of the same coin, and that the pursuit of truth is a vain and hopeless one in a world where one is constantly deceived by one self and by others. A quote from the book states “it is no more than a moral prejudice that truth is worth more than appearance.” Interestingly, when Wilde produced an edited version of The Picture of Dorian Gray with a defensive preface, he chose aphorisms, the style made famous at the time by Nietzsche as the structure through which to mount his defence. In Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche heavily criticised the British moral systems and targeted British philosophers as particularly worthy of being vilified for their pseudo philosophy. While Nietzsche wrote under the protection of isolation and the social convenience of illness for much of his life, Oscar Wilde had no such protections from the consequences of his almost identical philosophies. It was the British who made trouble for Wilde, the same moralistic brutes Nietzsche had criticised as holding back western civilisation.
What Nietzsche and to a lesser extend Wilde were saying was far more radical than what you repress takes you over. They were criticising the very foundations of our judgement systems, in all facets of our culture. But equally they were criticising the gatekeepers of cultural and moral examination and making a strong case against the anaemia of weak minded liberal views. When Dorian tries to do good at the end of his catharsis, he is horrified to discover his goodness was only ever a desperate grab for more experience. Another barrier between the self and death, another aesthetic pleasure. It is this that Nietzsche suggests lies beneath all our behaviours and only when we take all the morals we know of, categorise and anthropologise them and decide which to keep and which to toss will we be able to escape this anaemic pursuit of that which selfishly appeases us in some way. The Western world has never done this of course, so we languish in the place Nietzsche criticised still, and the Oscar Wilde’s of this world are still paying the price for our faux morality.
Which brings me to the current manifestation of The Picture of Dorian Gray showing at the Genesian Theatre. This is an adaptation, a contemporised version of the novel with the standout idea to take the “picture” and make it a film – a decision of great insight and clarity considering film and television have become the primary purveyors of morality in our contemporary culture. It is no accident that the arts, presumably so progressive, are miles behind business regarding the integration of (for example) feminists and minority groups. It’s easier to get a woman to be the President of the United States these days than it is to get a feminist-centric film a gong at the Academy Awards and that is no accident. Not that it is “easy” to get a female president, but the point still stands. Films and television are still so male-centric because they are the great unspoken stalwarts of morality, primarily because they’re seen as non-threatening and because they take us in our “down time.” If you doubt this, think about the power Rupert Murdoch wields and ask yourself some questions about his moral position. Consider also, Tony Abbotts recent concerns about “social engineering” (a term concocted, one presumes, out of fear of Nazism, when the Nazis would have agreed with him 100% and stood right alongside him on this issue) regarding teaching tolerance in an attempt to stop bullying in schools. In the same way Tony Abbott didn’t want women protected against STD’s because it would make them promiscuous, he doesn’t want bullying of LGBT students to stop because it could turn us all gay. This is an extreme version of the moral position upheld by main stream cinema against which The Genesian Theatre is holding the all important mirror. We absolutely do labour under the conditions Nietzsche warned against over one hundred years ago, and have heeded none of his warnings and advice. And herein lies the rub. The warning of The Picture of Dorian Gray, as brought out in the wonderful play at the Genesian, are not reserved for the Tony Abbots of the world, but for the ineffective left, you and I, the theatre makers and attendees who continue to speak our piece into a safe room and cling in our own way to the very morals we supposedly refuse.
The Picture of Dorian Grey used to be a morality tale of sorts after Faust, Shakespeare, Tannhauser and Plato’s Republic, but this adaptation has radicalised the narrative to provide a contemporary structure that eschews its literary baggage and tosses us into a modern day tale of nihilism and a passion for the image that one can’t help but see everywhere these days. But this version is no simplistic warning against the dangers of vanity. It is a complex examination of the way we relate to our own morals and the uncomfortable truth that the courage we took to live our own reality might be nothing other than another constructed barrier between us and the boredom of our short lives. Morality doesn’t save us from murders, pain, emotionally stunted children or STD’s. It prevents us from making strong lucid choices about the way humanity is best to continue and what can be done about us, the world and our place in the world. It prevents us from millions of options and keeps us doped up on an easy fix. How can you free yourself when you don’t recognise and identify the prison you are in? This was Nietzsche’s warning and Wilde’s currently manifest in the reimagined play at the Genesian.
Nathan Farrows adaptation is well worth a look for this exciting take on the novel, and Stephen Lloyd Coombs direction, assisted by Jasper Garner-Gore is a rambling, exciting journey into the book’s very complicated nuances. They’ve assembled a thrilling cast, headlined by two great performances from Martin Portus and Richard Mason. Portus’ familiar declarative style brings a chilling gravitas to the role of Harry, the wayward Faustian tempter who leads Dorian to the book that will lead him astray. Portus is a chilling antagonist, but he is, in his own way, an equal defender of the morals he presumes to despise. There is no point being the other side of the same coin, and it is here that Dorian finds his doom. Richard Mason as Bas is the sensitive artist but equally he is an immobile left, caught between the thing that needs to be said and the beauty that sweeps him away. He is gentle and lovely and yet disarmingly potent, particularly when he takes on the spiritual dimensions of the powerful dead. Michael Yore is a strong Dorian, appropriately beautiful and interestingly more engaged with the image of himself as a symbol rather than the secret to his power. With Yore’s internalised Dorian we get a stronger image of so many beautiful people we know today, rather than a Faustian hero who lives with the gods. Behind these three is a strong cast of Ellen Wiltshire as the deeply sad Sybil, Emilia Stubbs Grigoriou as the wilful yet painfully hungry Allison, Louis Cummings as Jim, Jimmy Bai as the tragic Ash and Anne Greenen flitting about in multiple roles. The support cast are all good, regularly giving the feel that there are more people on the stage than one can count, and filling out their brief roles with the strength of character intended by Wilde.
This is a fascinating adaptation of a still relevant subject that is well tackled in Wilde’s book. The use of film is particularly clever, and adds a fresh dimension to the chilling insights The Picture of Dorian Gray has always afforded.