Sarah Snook in The Picture of Dorian Gray

Snook dazzles as Dorian Gray

Wilde’s preoccupation with beauty and artifice brings a sassy Victorian immorality tale into our own times

On Theatre

This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

We start with a picture: well, we would, given that Oscar Wilde’s quirky fin de siècle gothic horror, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is about the power of portraits and the quest for eternal youth, themes as old as the Greeks and as contemporary as the anti-aging mythology sold over a million beauty counters.

The balancing allegories of human frailty and vanity are timeless. But Dorian, whilst treated to sundry film adaptations, has not often graced the stage.

This may be because the baggy (and only) Oscar Wilde novel is really a series of vignettes with characters who can feel more like Pirandello constructs than flesh-and-blood. We meet Dorian and his libertine influencer, Lord Henry Wotton; and Basil Hallward, whose image will free Dorian to pursue a life of untrammelled desire, whilst the picture in the attic records his crimes and awaits, like the day of judgement.

Dorian Gray is at once astute and daring — the most overtly gay of Wilde’s stories in the noir fixation on jeunesse dorée — and remarkably daft. We veer from the tragic death of Gray’s muse Sibyl Vane to Dorian’s high jinks and over-exuberant nightlife in a giddy plot that is hard to recall apart from the persistent painting.

The Sydney Theatre Company adaptation at the Theatre Royal Haymarket tackles this merry mess with gusto, going all in on multimedia tricks and stunts over a pacey two hours. What we really need to know is who can carry off a character who is by turns vulnerable, infuriating, sensual, trivial and as camp as a box of Christmas crackers.

The answer turns out to be Australia’s Sarah Snook, whose flinty performance as Siobhan “Shiv” Roy in TV’s Succession showcased an uncanny ability to sustain a mix of charm and repellence. A dead cert then for Dorian, who veers between lofty self-confidence and manic dread of ageing and death.

In reducing him to a metaphor for holding back the years, it’s easy to forget how controversial Wilde’s gothic ride was when it was first published in full-length form in 1891. A review in the Scottish Observer declared that, “Mr. Wilde has brains, art, and style; but if he can write for none but outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph-boys, the sooner he takes to tailoring (or some other decent trade) the better for his own reputation and the public morals.”

Tailoring alas, never did get the benefit of Wilde’s many talents, and public morals today are similarly degraded by self-absorption and image control. Snook expertly captures this time-bending aspect of the work: a brooding, lambent presence with gender-neutral quiff and pin-sharp eyes, which we often see in close up, projected on numerous screens which slide on and off the stage, shifting our perspective or tricking us into watching one thing whilst a sudden shift of action occurs elsewhere.

The tour de force moment has Snook having dinner with six of her other “selves”. In-jokes about Insta-moments and selfies abound — we watch up close on a giant projection as she edits the filters of herself to iron out imperfections — with the accompanying suggestion that our relentless self-curation is robbing something of the human soul as it goes along.

It’s hard to escape multimedia formats in the theatre these days, and many of them are at best enhancements, at worst gimmicky additions. This time, the hype about technological brilliance is fully justified, enabling Snook to make the most of the postmodern nature of the work — and showcase her extraordinary versatility and energy in playing all of the characters at once (26 in total).

Marg Horwell’s chromatic costumes and set are a visual thrill, with sly Marc Quinn-esque flourishes of decay and shadowy undertones as the hedonism gives way to stories of suicide, exploitation and mental anguish.

Wilde’s preoccupation with beauty, artifice, and zeal for experience and risk brings a sassy Victorian immorality tale nicely into our own times or indeed any times: there are 1970s disco hit numbers from Donna Summer and 1980s gay anthems from Jimmy Somerville, as well as facial injections, druggy parties and evanescent wastrels straight out of the “sidebar of shame” of celebrity coverage. Viewer discretion is advised in the more sicky parts.

Gradually, Dorian’s crimes and neglect catch up with him, and the multi-screen experience shows him on the rack of psychological dissolution in disturbing detail. The “wow” factor here is unmistakeable. Snook, together with the brilliant tech team and producer, and Len Blavatnik’s and Danny Cohen’s Access Entertainment, deserve all the awards nominations this will doubtless earn.

What gets lost in all the dazzle is the pathos of the novel and the sense that Dorian, like Goethe’s Faust, is a plaything of Manichean forces he can neither constrain nor resist. But we do see, in vibrant technicolour, the trail of damage that the 24-hour, century-old libertines leave behind. This, people, is what happens if you make a deal with the devil, so do think twice.

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