Behold! What Price for Beauty

Marinell HaegelinBy Marinell Haegelin

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde at English Theatre with Paul Glaser directing.

The first published version of the Irish playwright and poet’s only novel appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890, albeit relieved of 500 words unbeknownst to its author. One-hundred-twenty-five-years later this witty adaptation by Merlin Holland, Oscar Wilde’s only grandchild, and John O’Connor—including aforementioned removed text—was performed first in April 2015.

A proponent of the Aesthetic Movement, Wilde’s novel scandalized 19th century Victorian England with its opposing themes about youth, innocence, and art. It has inspired countless adaptations in cinema and television, literary, operatic and musical versions. Wilde’s legacy includes plays, epigrams, Dorian Gray, and events leading to his incarceration, exile and early death.

From left Timothy George, Edmund Sage-Green, Andrew Horton and Emily Byrt

The loquacious Lord Henry, prone to peppering conversations with cynical observations, is looking over the artist’s shoulder when Basil’s subject arrives at the studio. Dorian’s reaction at seeing his portrait surprises Basil, who is fascinated by the young man’s beauty. On the other hand, Dorian and Henry commence a friendship. Henry—disposed to being a pernicious muse—nurtures Dorian’s egotism by espousing the importance of beauty and pleasures. Distraught at the idea of aging, Dorian utters a wish to remain young while the portrait ages. Subsequently, he blithely embarks on a licentious, sybaritic lifestyle for twenty tempestuous years as Basil and Henry look on.

Andrew Horton (Dorian) left, and Timothy George (Lord Henry) right

Directing is Paul Glaser, the theatre’s Associate Director, whose key decisions bring this classic to life. Glaser uses an open stage concept, thus neutralizing the space and putting focus on the thespians. Mathias Wardeck’s set design includes movable props that the actors reposition throughout; the cast acknowledges maneuvering stage props is like learning to ride a bicycle and becomes second nature. Rapid changes of period costumes, excellent lighting design (Pia Virolainen) with original music and multiple sound effects spur the imagination. Entranced, the audience watches in anticipation of what is to come. Glaser also decided to show audiences the portrait, and how as Dorian ages it changes with debauchery distorting his once beautiful features. Not all productions do this.

The London thespians, performing for the first time at the English Theatre of Hamburg, are delighted to be here and they perform marvelously. In Dorian Gray, four actors execute twenty-one characters. Edmund Sage-Green plays seven characters, Timothy George five, Emily Byrt eight, and all three concur that playing multi-character roles, each with distinctive character traits, is challenging. Naturally, there can be only one Dorian Gray. Edmund’s characters all have different props –eyeglasses, various hats, etcetera, and twice he has only seconds to switch, which warrants a changing area just offstage. Tim points out how characters’ personality distinctions include voice inflections, behavioral habits, and posture. It is vital that each character retains his/her unique identity. Emily’s trick for switching from one character to another quickly was creating a “key”—a phrase or line: She pauses, says the line to open that character’s personality, and then proceeds onstage. Andrew Horton was challenged being onstage in all but one scene as Gray. His film and television background is quite different, working in “takes”, i.e. short phases that editors then cut together.

Edmund Sage-Green (James Vane) left, and Emily Byrt (Sybil Vane) right

At the heart of the play is the fundamental moral duplicity of mankind, as old as Adam and as illusive as Eve, befuddling ensuing mortals ad infinitum. Perhaps more significantly, Dorian Gray’s relevancy better suits the 21st century temperament. ‘Sin is a thing which writes itself across a man’s face. It cannot be concealed.’

THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY premiered February 15 and runs until April 14, 2018. The next production is I LOVE YOU, YOU’RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE, a musical by Joe DiPietro and Jimmy Roberts. Premiering on April 26, 2018, it runs through June 23, 2018.

Evening and matinee performances; tickets available at the theatre or online: The English Theatre of Hamburg, Lerchenfeld 14, 22081 Hamburg, Tel: 040-227 70 89: U-Bahn Mundsburg.

Images credit: © Kock, ETH