“The Tragedy of Dorian Gray”

Jeremy Malies at the Brighton Fringe
30 May 2021


Michael Caine once said that the Sixties only happened to about a hundred trendsetting and affluent people. Ross Dinwiddy sets his The Tragedy of Dorian Gray for local company Blue Devil Productions in 1965, and it begins with an outstanding (interpolated) scene at a vernissage where we meet the cast’s strongest performer Christopher Sherwood as painter Basil Hallward. His encounter with Dorian (Maximus Polling) is naturalistic and evocative of the period; you can feel the cultural tide and social mobility that swept through the UK under Harold Wilson. So far, so good.

Sadly, this is the play’s best moment with the quality of dialogue immediately tailing off. The backdrop remains credible; hedonism is still the overriding theme as Wilde’s world of absinthe and laudanum addicts is replaced by cocaine snorters and amyl nitrite poppers. Dinwiddy shows a great deal of skill in keeping the spare tone of the novel but is let down by actors who simply do not bat to number eleven and are incapable of delivering the aphorisms. As Harry, Kace Monney could usefully acquire a wider range of gesture and a few extra gears as could Heather Alexander as a hard-bitten seen-it-all gossip columnist.


Maximus Polling as Dorian Gray. Image courtesy Blue Devil Productions.


But there is solid work elsewhere, notably from Conor Litten as Alan Campbell who rises to the considerable challenge of conveying an outwardly respectable BBC arts pundit of the period who is also a libertine.  A change to the plot sees the role of actress Sybil Vane magnified such that she and Dorian are in a settled relationship. Dinwiddy observes her character closely; a hopeless drunk and general substance misuser she has lost custody of her child and occasionally she is reminiscent of Nina in The Seagull, another actress haunted by the fear that she isn’t very good. Tara Clark conveys little of the subtlety in Dinwiddy’s writing and when, as the plot extends right up until the year 2000, she is required to appear again as the original character’s daughter, we get just another iteration of Sybil with hardly a mannerism changed.

It’s a dance to the music of time for all but Maximus Polling as Dorian who becomes truly empathetic when, acquiring not so much as a wrinkle from 1965 through to the eve of the millennium, he resorts to posing as the son he never had while realizing the true horror of the vortex in which he is eternally ensnared. The portrait is by no means a magical revealing mirror for him, and there are moments of great poignancy as he realizes that an obsession with beauty has placed him in limbo if not damnation and rendered his soul hideous.

There is respect for Wilde’s original material; the plot changes have a clear purpose in allowing a predominantly young company to make the text meaningful to their world view. Some of the apophthegms have gone, but there are plenty of good gags that can be both cerebral and basic. It’s hardly a difficult period to conjure up but the Sixties costumes were first-rate; much care had been taken to suggest the Beatles as well as a whiff of the Profumo scandal, and I kept on expecting Jean Shrimpton to enter stage left. And yet there is also much restraint with the music remaining instrumental when chart hits from the period must have been tempting but could have proved catastrophic for Wilde’s idiom. I wish there had been constraint in other aspects; I can imagine people having sex once they are in bed and full nudity usually slows down a scene and is a distraction.


Maximus Polling as Dorian Gray. Image courtesy Blue Devil Productions.

Despite some stilted performances there is much to admire. The dissection of the publicity machine in the arts world is acute and there is a wonderful mock interview walk-out. The young cast talk about political and cultural figures such as the self-appointed arbiter of public decency Mary Whitehouse who would have been familiar to the largely middle-aged audience on the matinee when I attended, but for the performers would be remote.

Generally, the project offers a tribute to the enduring appeal of the Faustian theme at the core and the robust structure of the novel. It’s an indictment of those for whom fame comes before their art, profession, or even integrity. Dinwiddy directed a wonderful production of Joe Orton’s The Ruffian on the Stair a few years ago and is clearly happy and assured in this mode where he can recreate the licentiousness of certain elements of Sixties society. I felt for the company who had been obliged to defer this from last year and even now, given restricted numbers at the Rialto Theatre, felt the need to make a video version for online use. They deserved a larger non-socially-distanced audience and I will follow them with interest next year.