“Behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic.”
Staged in King’s College’s striking, curiously ornate Anatomy Museum, Sam Kindon’s visceral production injects a shot of adrenaline into Oscar Wilde’s seminal novel of beauty, brutality and excess.
The production faithfully adapts Wilde’s novel into two acts with an interval, running for around two hours in total, although thanks to the production’s excellent pacing one hardly notices its length. There is a distinct change in tone between the first and second acts; a 20-year timeskip is represented by the cast (with one fairly obvious exception) donning makeup to appear older, and the second act’s shorter running time is heightened by its brisker pace and sense of urgency, culminating in a blistering finale that leaves the viewer drained and awestruck in equal measure.
Kindon and assistant director Hannah Eirich direct with self-assured flair. Carefully chosen music and sound cues are peppered throughout the production - most notably the low, ominous, rumbling noises that underscore important scenes - whilst restrained usage of mise en scène heightens the action during specific moments. These range from the subtle, such as the closing of Sybil Vane’s makeup mirror to signify her suicide, to the ostentatiously theatrical, like the final scene of Act 1; Dorian changes into a lavish, Wildean fur coat, incense is lit and the set is adorned with rugs, carpets and banners, transforming the Anatomy Museum into one of Victorian London’s fabled opium dens and heralding the complete and utter degradation of our narcissistic protagonist. Accompanied by the languid intensity of BADBADNOTGOOD’s ‘Confessions’, this set piece is pulled off meticulously by Kindon’s talented cast and is emblematic of the professional quality of the production as a whole. This unmistakable sense of professionalism is characteristic of producer Tabitha Piggott, who continues to prove indispensable to theatre at King’s. Piggott’s presence is felt throughout; her deft manipulation of sound and lighting during pivotal scenes only scratch the surface of her importance to this adaptation’s success.
The pacey production is propelled forward by Will Matthews’ unforgettable depiction of the titular character and his descent into debauchery and vice. Matthews gives a considered, calculated performance, preening and swaggering about the stage one minute to roaring with unbridled intensity the next. It is a perverse joy to watch his piercing gaze and cool, seemingly unflappable demeanour slowly falter and crack as the play hurtles towards the maelstrom of violence and death that is its horrifying final act.
However, one would be remiss not to mention the other standout performances in the cast (of which there are many – Kindon’s cast of thirteen all bring their A-game), with special mention going to Hart Fargo’s sensitive, deeply sympathetic portrayal of tortured artist Basil Hallward and Rosanna Adams as Dorian’s doomed love interest, Sibyl Vane; her performance of Wilde’s short story The Nightingale and the Rose is an enthralling union of voice and physicality, and her tempestuous chemistry with Matthews makes Dorian’s rejection of her all the more tragic. But the true showstopper of this production is Gabriel Thomson’s rip-roaring performance as Lord Henry ‘Harry’ Wotton, gleefully embodying Wilde’s iconic character and positively emanating confidence and poise with every action he takes. His character’s development is a wonder to behold, most notably in his final scene with Dorian, in which Harry, now frail and wizened, desperately beseeches Dorian to come out with him in one last-ditch attempt to recapture his youth. It is heart-breaking to watch Thomson pathetically cling onto Dorian’s arm, trembling with abject hopelessness and wearing the haunting expression of a man filled with a lifetime of regrets, a image that lingered in my mind long after the curtain call.
Although there is little to complain about here, I was slightly disappointed with the role of Victor, Dorian’s manservant, who is given much greater significance here than in the novel. Jai Hooshmand is excellent, delivering a performance both sinister and phlegmatic; he is the only character that directly addresses the audience, and spends much of the play observing the action, functioning as a kind of Greek chorus-cum-narrator, punctuating proceedings with extracts from Wilde’s famed preface to the novel. However, I did feel as though he was somewhat underutilized, and questioned whether more could have been done to use him as a vehicle to further highlight and develop the novel’s themes of aestheticism and duplicity.
This is a minor complaint, however, and does little to detract from the majesty of the overall experience. Make no mistake; Kindon, Eirich, Piggott and company have thoroughly captured the essence of Wilde’s masterpiece, crafting a mature, triumphant production that stands on its own as a masterful piece of theatre that utterly belies the youth of its cast and crew.