independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

A symphony of stage craft

Neil Bartlett's adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray is a creative coup that remains true to Wilde's perfect novel

Bob Kelly, Ali White, Susannah de Wrixon and Lise Ann McLaughlin are among the ensemble cast of the triumphant 'Picture of Dorian Gray' at the Abbey — 'a riveting evening's theatre' that remains faithful to Wilde's novel

MESMERIC is probably the best word to describe Neil Bartlett's direction of his own adaptation of Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray at the Abbey. It's horribly ugly, deeply dark and disturbing, and a symphony of stage craft at its best.

The story of wish fulfilment that leads to a Faustian climax has all the elements that could turn a play of the novel into a piece of blowsy Hammer horror. The aristocratic, beautiful, rich and spoiled young man views the portrait his friend has painted of him and is desolate that his own beauty must fade while the portrait remains as a testament to what he has lost. His barely spoken desire becomes a reality, and he goes through a life of almost unimaginable depravity, criminal indulgence and Satanic cruelty, the portrait locked in the attic becoming a hideous mirror of his inhumanity. And Dorian Gray remains perfection into old age. Having murdered the portraitist to preserve his secret, there is only one other witness to the horror, his friend Lord Henry Wotton with whom he has shared some of his vile pursuits. When Wotton dies, Dorian too comes to his predictably terrible end.

Published in 1890, before Oscar met Lord Alfred Douglas, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a startling foretelling of its author's downfall, with even the description of Dorian a pen picture of Bosie's petulant beauty. Bartlett wisely doesn't labour this point (in fact by ignoring it in his approach, he allows it to hover above the stage throughout) as the characters move through a bare, shabby and grubby set, occasionally lifted into a kind of spiritual sunlight by means of lighting, dialogue and glittering costume. But we are never allowed to forget that this is a tragedy of Greek proportions. Indeed, the actors step from their various roles into a vengeful chorus, led by the constant uneasily inquisitive presence of Dorian's housekeeper Mrs Leaf (Kate O'Toole) and his valet Francis (Gerard Byrne).

Bartlett has taken the courageous and more than well-rewarded step of casting an actor direct from drama school in the role of Dorian. Tom Canton has more than the looks: his domination of the stage whether in arrogance, shrill helplessness, terror or disillusion, is absolutely assured as he leads a large cast that is as ensemble-smooth as they are individually impressive. Charlotte McCurry is Sybil Vane, Dorian's suicidal first victim, Bob Kelly her brother James. Frank McCusker is Basil Hallward, and Jasper Britton the unpleasant Lord Henry Wotton.

The eerie set and the splendid costumes are by Kandis Cook, with stunning lighting by Chris Davey, and sound by Ivan Birthistle and Vincent Doherty.

You want to be jogged into thinking about the meaning of art? See Dorian Gray. You want to face uneasy questions about morality and hypocrisy? See Dorian Gray. You want to be faced with the fragility of even the most hedonistic persona? See Dorian Gray. Neil Bartlett encompasses them all in a riveting evening's theatre, his transposition a creative coup that still remains faithful to Oscar's floridly perfect novel.

***

Emma Donoghue is a world-wide success as a novelist, and deservedly so. She also writes plays, but her stage touch is far less sure. The Talk of the Town, her new tribute part-biography to the tough, brittle, and despairing Maeve Brennan, the 'Long Winded Lady' of the New Yorker magazine, is quite simply not a play. It is a chronological kaleidoscope of a period in Brennan's life that fails to get under her skin, and dismisses both her youth and old age as apparently irrelevant to what she was.

The play (a Hatch and Landmark co-production for the Dublin Theatre Festival, playing at Project) presents her fully fledged on her first day at the New Yorker, thirty-ish, and drinking in the company of managing editor William Shawn, cartoonist Charles Addams (he of the Addams Family, with whom Brennan slipped into an affair) and columnist St Clair McKelway, whom she was to marry and with whom she sank into less than convivial alcoholism. So far, so foul-mouthed and wittily good.

Donoghue shows a shadow composite on stage of Maeve Brennan's lower middle-class childhood in Ranelagh in Dublin, the background which influenced so many of her short stories. But the device is uneasy, never seeming to decide whether it is her fiction-source or an actual memory source. And Donoghue fails to note that Brennan's father, an Old IRA man and hardly diplomatic material, was chosen by De Valera to be Irish Ambassador to the United States. It gave his daughter effortless entree into privileged and sophisticated Washington and New York during her teens.

Further, Donoghue ends her play with Brennan recovering her writing voice after her divorce, an implication of happy-ever-after which is less than just to a deeply unhappy, tragic life, albeit one of great talent. Because Maeve Brennan's instability sank into serious and incurable mental illness, and after a period spent squatting in a box-room at the New Yorker (she never settled, preferring to live in apartotels, and always eating in restaurants), the New Yorker itself stepped in and had her committed to an institution, in which she died in 1993.

The production values of the piece are superlative, however, as can be expected from director Annabelle Comyn and producer Anne Clarke. Catherine Walker makes an edgy, elegant Brennan, with Owen McDonnell as St Clair McKelway and Darragh Kelly as Charles Addams. But Lorcan Cranitch is the star of the evening, in a beautifully rounded portrayal of the uptight and pragmatic William Shawn who tried to protect Maeve Brennan from herself.

***

It's hard to work out what Declan Hughes is trying to do in his new play for the Gate, The Last Summer.

Paul, Tom, Larry and Kevin are 17 in 1977, trying to form themselves into a pop group while they await the results of their Leaving Cert exam. Paul is having some sexual success with 16-year-old Caroline who sees him as an older, experienced man.

Then we swing back and forth between then and 2007, with Paul a successful writer home from America, married, but still yearning for Caroline, who has married Tom on the rebound when Paul took off for the US. Tom is now a successful Celtic Tiger, unaware that the bubble is about to burst. Larry, who spurned university for auctioneering, is riding on the property bubble and living with his younger lover Bruno. And Kevin, the boy from the miserable problem home in 1977, is no longer with us: dead or disappeared, nobody knows.

That's the scenario, set very specifically in Dalkey, outside Dublin, with almost an overload of local references. And despite the detail, the piece flounders: we are left saying "so what?" Just another conversation on a homecoming, really.

And while it's entirely competent, with some keen and insightful dialogue, it doesn't go anywhere, the second act point, if there is one, entirely irrelevant to the first act obsession with the 1970s Canadian band Rush. It's as though Hughes wrote two plays, decided that the pop one wasn't strong enough to stand on its own, and melded it with one that deals with middle-aged angst and disappointment.

Cathy Belton, Declan Conlon, Peter Hanly and Gary Lydon head the cast as the older versions, with Paul Connaughton, Sam McGovern, James Murphy, Clare O'Malley and Kevin Shackleton as the younger versions, all of them except O'Malley, I'm afraid, looking like the hoariest 17-year-olds seen around Dun Laoghaire for a very long time. Toby Frow directs.

Among next week's reviews will be 'Everyone Is King Lear In His Own Home' produced by Pan Pan at Smock Alley.

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