Posts Tagged ‘Oscar Wilde’

Review – Pictures of Dorian Gray – Jermyn Street Theater

June 13, 2019

While Oscar Wilde’s plays mocking Victorian society are regularly revived, his novel of art and evil – The Portrait of Dorian Gray – doesn’t have a standard theatrical version, despite being popular as a film and even having some luck as a ballet and even as a promenade theatrical event. It’s a great novel, deliciously fin de siecle, a perfect companion for Jeckyll and Hyde, the poetry of Baudelaire, and the art of Von Stuck. And it deserved better than I had seen it get on stage before, and my hopes were high that Lucy Shaw’s fresh adaptation at the Jermyn Street Theater – and the decision to use four different configurations of the cast, including two versions with a female lead – would bring fresh insights and real vibrancy to this play.

As a female Dorian, Helen Reuben is deliciously chosen – endlessly fresh faced, a delight for the eyes, absolutely believable as the person whose portrait could capture the essence of beauty – or someone’s soul. As her tempter, Basil Hallward, Stanton Wright nicely forms heartless words to entice Dorian away from anything other than the worship of the self; and with the two of them decked in black velvet and gilding, they create a feeling of late night menace and brutality that makes the sensibility of the novel feel very alive. The portrait itself is left unseen, as is best for horror: it is merely a reflective pond beneath a muddled shining wall that might have been a mirror. The agelessness is left to the true Dorian; the ugliness of the portrait is created entirely with words.

These words, however, prove a distraction in too much of the story. With two more actors (most memorably painter Henry Wotten – Richard Keightley – and Sibyl Vane – Augustina Seymour) left with not quite enough to do, they are sent to speak Wilde’s words describing Gray’s words much like a Greek chorus – as a near constant chant beneath the dialogue on stage. The words do a lot to help pump up the atmosphere of poisoned flowers and redolent evil – but they prove too much of a distraction and ended in reducing the sense of impending doom. It’s all extremely successful when Dorian is immersing herself in corrupting literature – hard to convey what she is taking in otherwises – but when she’s going to opium dens and corrupting the wives and sons of the elite, the audience is given little sense of just what she is doing and why she is so out of control. Admittedly Wilde himself doesn’t go into much detail about Gray’s activities, but her time spent in the depths and ultimate ruination could have been built up to much better effect. Still, the ending is handled nicely, with beautiful theatricality, and the night ended with a grand feeling of satisfaction.

Picture C Cast, Pictures of Dorian Gray

Picture C Cast, Pictures of Dorian Gray: Helen Reuben, Augustina Seymour, Stanton Wright, Richard Keightley (L-R)

One thing really had me struggling, though: to a great extent, Gray’s fall is the fall of a man, and a gay man at that. While Reuben and Wright have a delicious electricity between them, it felt to me like it was only because Gray was a man and an affair between the two could not have been portrayed on stage (or in a book!) at the time this novel was written that they did not consummate their relationship. And women cannot ruin men the way Gray ruined both men and women. It was a pleasure to see this play done with a woman in the lead role, but I think some changes to the script for the “Picture C/Picture D” cast could have amped the impacted tremendously. That said, given Stanton Wright’s charisma, I think it would be worthwhile to see it again in the “Picture A/Picture B” configuration … this fine story has been brought to life with London smoke and back alleys intact, and I’d enjoy taking another trip down the road to glorious self destruction.

(This review is for a performance that took place on June 11th, 2019. It runs through July 6th.)

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Review – Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” – Richmond Theatre (then Hampstead)

June 4, 2010

Headlong and Curve Theater have created a retelling of Oscar Wilde’s Salome that seems oh-so-very au courant and came to the Richmond Theatre for a four-day visit at the end of May, 2010, with the promise of more touring and an extended stay at the Hampstead Theatre (June 22-July 17th). Thanks to membership in the Twespians theater club, I had an offer not just for free tickets (unsure if they needed to paper the house or promote the show) but also for free wine before the show. Well, Richmond is quite out of my normal stomping grounds, but I’ve wanted to see this piece of Oscar Wilde’s performed for ages, as I am a fan of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations and I enjoyed the rather painfully over the top Alla Nazimova silent film version last year. And there was the free wine. How better to get into the spirit of this incarnation of fin-de-siecle decadence than liquored to the gills, unless perhaps I was to watch it dressed in velvet and draped in pearls?

Thank God I’d left my velvet and pearls behind, for this show was as far from any exhilarating tribute to excess as it were possible to imagine – while wholly needing the lubrication of several stiff drinks. We are given the court of Herod, in which the inhabitants supposedly have every luxury – but it is presented as a sort of Iraqi oil dump, with camo-fatigued soldiers looking rough and patrolling around with an excess of energy. The set, a black square covered in ground up tire rubber, with a few pools of black liquid on the edges and towering metal structures behind, certainly created a very modern atmosphere, but I found it completely contrary to anything implied in the text and, to be honest, all rather a bit too in love with itself. Yes, the play can be seen as some sort of rant against the powers of privilege, a screed against corruption, but in this setting, in which all poetry has been stripped away, Wilde’s words had a difficult battle to fight.

For characters and plot, we have a soldier (Sam Donovan) who has an unhealthy attraction to teen beauty Salome (Zawe Ashton), the step-daughter of Herod (Con O’Neill). Herod, meanwhile, has developed his own unhealthy attraction to Salome, which is making her mother, Herodias (Jaye Griffiths) understandably uncomfortable. Salome, utterly stuck on herself, develops her own crush: on John the Baptist (Iokanaan, played by Seun Shote), who is Herod’s prisoner. The source of her attraction is somewhat obvious: he’s the only man who is not obsessed with Salome; in fact, he repudiates her rudely (and yet poetically). And with his ramblings about whores and punishment and saviors, well, he’s just a little bit on the nutso and possibly dangerous side: perfect for a girl who’s been living perfectly sheltered in a hotbed of intrigue. Love the man her powerful “daddy” is afraid of? Perfect!

Wilde’s job is to make this story, to which we all know the ending, intriguing. Iokanaan must seem powerful and intelligent, yet manage to exert attraction even though he’s been living in a cell below the ground; Herod must seem both despotic and weak, lustful and yet frightened, so that he can hold out against Salome’s demands. In some ways, it’s like a Greek play in which we all know the plot and the playwright’s job is to ratchet up the tension without making it descend into farce. The focus on Salome and her power over others is probably the most difficult dramatic hurdle; Wilde attacks this by building up Salome’s attractiveness with lush descriptions (most of which come from the soldiers and are a delight to the ears) but also by showing every character being impacted by her. I bought into this in a way I never had with a film or the opera; Wilde’s words and setting made me see the captivation she creates be due to her being a free spirit – but also because she is a pearl in a cesspit of corruption, pure if only for seeking nothing but her own pleasure. With Iokanaan close to a force of nature, and Herod a man both oozing with power and yet afraid of his own shadow, the stage is well set for the inevitable.

In her horrid gold jumpsuit, Zawe Ashton seems unlikely to convince as this creature “with feet like doves,” but I believed in her performance as an utterly self-centered teen with no concept of consequences, only caring for instant gratification, the sun around which lesser celestial bodies fade into insignificance. She even handled the “dance of Salome” well – she seemed very much the modern, celebrity-obsessed girl, but with a bizarre belief in the value of exposing bits of her body to people in order to get them to do what she wanted. I actually found it hard to buy that anyone could go against the order of a direct boss in exchange for a view of nubile torso – but in the cooked up atmosphere of soldiers on duty in the desert, it kind of made sense.

Overall, though, I found this production depressing and as unsexy as can be. I wasn’t revolted by Salome making out with a bleeding, decapitated head; I was revolted by the ugliness of the show. Wilde has Herod talking of beautiful white peacocks with gilded beaks, of a pearl necklace that is like moons chained in threads of silver, and all of these beautiful words, every word of praise for Salome herself, has the life sucked out of it by the bleak set and the drab costumes. We hear them speak of luxury but see nothing but privation. Is our world not already coated in filth, that we should need to see Herodias stepping in a puddle of scum on stage?

In a week in which I saw three shows, this was perhaps the best; but only because it provided a singular chance to hear the worlds of Oscar Wilde spoken on stage (and the others were the abyssmal Ingredient X and bad-unto-farce Paradise Lost). A live production of Salome this was but it’s hard to say that this show brought Wilde’s words to life as this production did everything it could to ground their power and beauty into the ground like a cigarette butt. I suspect Jamie Lloyd is pleased with how he “updated” it and made it relevant to modern audiences, but to me the production reeked of trendiness and a lack of faith in the script. Given that this show is running through a lovely summer, I can only advise you to take a lovely picnic and a few friends and read it to each other outside, in a field of flowers, where you can laugh and laze and enjoy yourself. Be sure to bring some cold white wine, and when you think about how fleeting life’s pleasures are, raise a glass to Salome and to poor Oscar, then be grateful you’re not inside watching this horrible show.

(This review is for a performance that took place at Richmond Theater on Tuesday, May 25th, 2010. Salome will continue to tour through the end of June, hitting the Oxford Playhouse, the Northern Stage, and Theater Royal Brighton before settling down for a run at the Hampstead. Don’t say you weren’t warned. For other opinions, please see There Ought to be Clowns and of course the compendium at UpTheWestEnd.com, which should grow as the majors review this play.)

The Importance of Being Earnest – The Vaudeville Theatre (with Penelope Keith)

March 30, 2008

I was pleased to see that only a few months after opening and with very strong reviews, The Importance of Being Earnest had finally made it to the TKTS booth and the joy of 25 quid main stalls seats. Hurray! So we decided to have an impromptu Friday night “top quality” theater outing along with Wechsler and Cate (from my office) and go see this Wildean gem, which I had managed to utterly miss in my twenty-two odd years of actively and eagerly going to plays. Sure, I’d read it, but there is nothing like seeing a literary masterwork come to life in front of your eyes (unless it’s a horrible movie you’re talking about – I am only referring to theatrical masterworks), and the heavily loaded text of this show really benefits from getting off of the page and into (and out of) actors’ mouths. Suddenly it all seems like a dinner party attended exclusively by six Dorothy Parkers, only with a bit of plot to hold together the bon mots, or, rather, to give them a little something to hang upon.

The plot? Oh, I’d long forgotten it, and in fact I’d forgotten it enough that I did not remember a plot twist or two. Let’s say that it involves some gentlemen who are most clearly not named Ernest and there’s something about a handbag (rather like the handkerchief in that other play). There is also tea (served twice!), mistaken identities, and a lot of very clever jokes. Actually, there’s pretty much nothing but some very clever jokes that begin as tea is about to be served and end darned near where the handbag shows up, so perhaps these other items are superfluous.

That said, this really was a gem of a production of this clever little play and there’s a lot to recommend it if you like shows where you have to actually listen to what the actors are saying (a habit sadly thrown by the wayside in this era, and one which doesn’t actually seem to help one understand what’s going on when watching Pinter). The initial set is a lovely, gilded Japonaiserie room with a wealth of detail – it looked very appropriate for the time (unlike the costumes which were a complete hodgepodge, at least for the women) if perhaps far nicer than it would have. It was very Whistler, somehow. The second two sets, in a garden and in the front room of a country house, were fine but not nearly so absorbing.

The acting, though, was really what this show was about, as the characters could have done it in street clothes in a black box and still made it come alive. The men (Algie and Jack) were, well, as interchangeable as I recall them, with Algie being slightly more gay (Wildean, perhaps) and Jack a bit more whiny. The women … well, I have to say, seeing this after learning so much more about Victorian behavior, I found them very much not at all like I think real Victorian women would behave and speak! But, then, they were just characters in a play, and each of the actresses made her characters come brilliantly to life, even though Gwendolyn (Daisy Haggard) had a completely bizarre accent – it almost seemed like it was via New Jersey. I even loved Miss Prism, the prior, and the butlers! It was the kind of top-notch crew that one really only seems to get in London – effortless perfection from everyone involved.

At any rate – a very good night out, and highly recommended!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, March 28th, 2008.)