The Abbey Theatre’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

Drew Dunlap is an actor, director, playwright and reviewer from New York, currently living in Galway. He has a BA in Theatre and Psychology from Hofstra University and is in the process of receiving a MA in Drama and Theatre Studies from NUIG. You can see more of his reviews in his blog (The Glawegian New Yorker).

The Abbey Theatre’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

By Drew Dunlap

“All art is quite useless.”

Quite a start to a play adapted from a book about a portrait. Of course, this is a well-known quote from Oscar Wilde, and not the first to be heard in The Abbey’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. It drips with Wilde and his genius, and that’s how any production from his work should be. It can’t be hidden: I am a longtime admirer of Wilde, his work, and his life. This show does him justice, there’s no doubt in that.

I would expect a lavish set when seeing a play at The Abbey, but that is not so with this production. As the curtain rises it reveals the stage to be full of set pieces, such as chairs, tables, the portrait in progress, and microphones, but no traditional set. There was something mysterious and freeing about this. Added to this are the increasing amounts of smoke. Much of this was created by the actors, but they seemed to be pumping more in. There is a chorus of servants, prostitutes, and at times the dead. In some scenes they are a distraction, and do not add much to the scene. More often though, particularly when functioning as Dorian’s inner thoughts, they create an overwhelming sense of the madness of a man who’s every blemish is magically removed.

The Dublin Theatre Festival program made references to Oscar Wilde’s trial and Dorian Gray’s use as evidence against him. This production put some focus on homosexual themes which could be found in the book. This can be difficult as in that time period men were far more affectionate toward each other and modern audiences can be mixed on how well they know this. Neil Bartlett, our director and adapter, removes all doubt by having Dorian kiss men twice rather violently. This seemed a bit too far. A subtler approach would have had a far larger impact. These kisses do not fit seamlessly into the narrative and feel far more sensational then passionate. The evidence is in the text, in the art if you will.

The greatest draw for The Picture of Dorian Gray is not the adaptation or spectacular things they do with the set pieces, but Dorian himself, or Tom Canton. His performance is magnificent and breathe taking. He takes Dorian from an innocent young man a heartless monster. The transformation is alarming and is a credit to Mr. Canton’s immense talent. This is his professional theatrical debut as well. At only 22, just out of The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he is captivating Abbey audiences.

The Abbey’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a brilliant adaptation dripping with Oscar Wilde’s timeless genius. Some of the production concepts don’t work quite as well as one would hope, but overall the show works. The audience is hit violently by the blatant homosexuality of the story, which would have been far more powerful with a bit less bluntness and more passion and subtlety. I would suggest going both for the wonderful adaption, and Tom Canton’s stellar performance. The Picture of Dorian Gray will be at The Abbey until November 17th. Plenty of time, but I imagine tickets will go fast.

It would only be fitting to end with this:

“There is no such thing as a good influence, Mr. Gray. All influence is immoral. Because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul.”

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