Second Squire’s revival of John Osborne’s adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s only novel, is a curiosity but well worth catching. Osborne and Wilde, each in their way, revolutionised English theatre and finding the two together is an exciting prospect. Osborne’s script is faithful to the original text: in fact, it is rather too Wilde by half, with its epigrams, philosophy and wit, but this is also a fault of the novel, so at least the audience gets the authentic experience. Wilde delivers a genuine shocker, but he wasn’t shy of seeming pretentious.
Osborne wrote his adaptation for TV – it was broadcast in 1976 with Jeremy Brett as the artist Basil Hallward, and John Gielgud as Lord Henry Wotton, the mouthpiece for all of those Wildean epigrams. The ageless Dorian was played by Peter Firth, best-known now as the spymaster in Spooks, which seems improbable casting until you see pictures of Firth from forty years ago: as a teenager, he was pretty much the picture-book definition of ‘rent’.
Staging a film script inevitably means losing some of the sweep. BBC plays of the 1970s were never especially cinematic, but the White Bear is a small space and there are times when one feels a more cinematic idiom would help the play – especially in the scenes at the East End theatre with the tragic Sybil Vane. The cast coped well with the elaborate language, especially in the scenes between Gray and Wotton, played by Hugh John and Harry Burton, but the supporting cast is good: John MacCormick a soulful Basil Hallward, Lizzie Bourne a compelling Sybil, Michael Kingbury just very very good as the aging aristocrat Lord Fermour.
Dorian is a bright idea for a revival, especially with Dorian on the exam syllabuses. A larger stage, more money, some cutting of the text and some expanded interludes of dance or movement, would help the work breathe. But until it is revived again, go catch it at the White Bear.
Rating: Four Stars (if you’re studying Osborne or Wilde, or interested in their one-off civil partnership)