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Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray (Theatre Royal Haymarket)

Review by Daz Gale

 

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

 

When it comes to classic stories that are ever-present through generations, seemingly never aging, The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of the finest. Since Oscar Wilde’s novel was first published in 1890, it has been adapted and revived time and time again in a multitude of mediums. Countless films and TV shows have been made on the story, and then there’s the theatrical adaptations – plays, musicals – you name it, it’s been done. Surely by now, we’ve seen it all? Apparently not.

 

Kip Williams’ adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray was first seen in Sydney in 2020 and now makes it to the West End, giving a very different approach to a story we have all seen in some shape or form over the years. Telling the story of the titular Dorian Gray whose response to a portrait painted of him is to sell his soul in a deal that his beauty will never fade, nor will he ever fade. Instead, the picture will feel the weight of time and repercussions for his actions, as Dorian’s morals become more sinister and his sins more severe.



One of the more unusual and unique choices in this production is that the cast of 26 characters are all played by one person – Sarah Snook. Ever-present on stage for the entirety of the two-hour single act with just herself for company, she gives a performance that can only be described as exhausting for an observer, let alone how she must feel herself. With incredible characterisation and versatility, she gives personalities to all of her many characters, no matter how big or small the role is. With a cheeky charm and commanding stage presence, she gives an outstanding performance that can never be underestimated for how faultless it is (the tiniest of inevitable stumbles aside) despite the complexities and challenges of the staging.

 

Kip Williams; adaptation takes Oscar Wilde’s source material and brings something fresh, new, and incredibly exciting to the fair. His direction for this story borders on a whole new level of genius with a tireless use of the space and technology and a seemingly never-ending use of creativity. Creativity is the key word for this production – Kip’s approach to the story is bold and unlike any version of this story you will have seen before. Anything that bold is a risk and I’m sure it will prove divisive to some. For me, however, I was awe-struck from start to finish.



As Jamie Lloyd’s Sunset Boulevard did last year, video plays a huge and integral part in the telling of this story. Starting with one huge screen dominating the stage, camera operators film Sarah live on stage and project it to the audience. Beautifully filmed, this was impressive enough… and then it upped the ante. The pre-recorded video began being used alongside the live footage to see Sarah acting with pre-recorded versions of herself – sometimes one other person, sometimes a group of people. This allowed for a lot of creativity and inspired sequences, creating some comic moments but always feeling impactful and awe-inspiring in their execution. A mobile phone camera then adds an extra level with a face app leading to one of the best sequences of the entire play.

 

The varying use of techniques and ever-moving screens created a show that felt like a mix between live theatre and a movie, blurring the lines more than any show I have seen before. With Sarah transforming from one character to another live on stage to an ingenious use of space, seeing Sarah pace every inch of the stage and disappearing into the lower levels, being filmed going from one side to the other (though never singing an Andrew Lloyd Webber song). Unlike that other show I keep inevitably referring to, The Picture of Dorian Gray has no shortage of visual surprises with sets and props being wheeled on and lowered onto the stage, creating a show that is always visually stimulating. It is in how these scenes are filmed that creates a real sense of excitement, with a gorgeous use of lighting from Nick Schlieper, set and costume design from Marg Horwell, and video design from David Bergam blending together to create one of the most exhilarating shows visually in recent memory.



To say Sarah Snook is alone on that stage isn’t completely true… or fair. She is joined by an incredibly hard-working crew of stage managers and camera operators. Never hiding in the (exposed) wings and always present, they help her get from A to B in a jaw-dropping fashion. People in those roles may not always get the recognition or praise they deserve but it is impossible to talk about this show without paying them their dues – and they deservedly share the bows with Sarah at the end of the show.

 

More and more lately, writers, directors, and all kinds of creatives are pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved in theatre and this production is the perfect example of that. Yes, it won’t be for everyone and certain purists may scoff, but theatre should never be boring, and this show couldn’t be further from that if it tried. It would be easy to dismiss this as a novelty but this use of film and video adds layers, nuance, and depth to the story, never detracting from Oscar Wilde’s ageless story.

 

Forget what you think you know about The Picture of Dorian Gray. In fact, forget what you think you know about theatre in general.. This new hybrid of theatre, film, and indeed live-stream feels so exciting to witness. Physically and technically demanding, it requires extreme precision from Sarah, the stage crew, and the direction – all of which are delivered perfectly. The result is one of the most creative and exciting shows you will have seen on stage in a long while. This production may not be for everyone but for me, I couldn’t have loved it more if I tried. Absolutely phenomenal in every way – from Sarah Snook’s astonishing acting to Kip Williams’ dynamic direction, this production of The Picture of Dorian Gray is a work of art.

 

The Picture of Dorian Gray plays at Theatre Royal Haymarket until 11th May. Tickets from https://trh.co.uk/whatson/the-picture-of-dorian-gray/

 

Photos by Marc Brenner

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