The elegant façade of the townhouse currently playing host to The Alchemic Order's The Picture of Dorian Gray gives away no secrets about what is going on within. We wondered if we'd come to the right place until the door was opened by an obsequious butler in full Victorian gothic garb, who showed us through to join a sophisticated garden party, complete with violinist and crystal wine glasses.
We first encounter Dorian Gray as a spoilt, shallow but essentially naive young man, recently befriended by solicitous artist Basil Hallward, who paints the titular portrait. Petulant and furious upon realising that he will age and decay and the portrait will not, Dorian insists that he would give his soul to avoid this state of affairs. At the prompting of Lord Harry Wotton, Dorian begins a process of moral deterioration, starting with a love affair with an unfortunate actress and culminating in murder.
With a smallish audience of 25 or so, The Picture of Dorian Gray wends its way through the various rooms of the house, making ever more ingenious use of the space. The limited numbers allow for a genuinely immersive experience, as the audience are free to follow the play around at their own whim rather than shuffling and queuing as is often the case in such productions. The house itself is a marvel, and exploited to its full potential: we follow the action from a dark bedroom draped in black satin into a genteel drawing room, and out into the garden which doubles as a theatre. Sometimes, the performance takes place in our midst, other times, we watch shocking developments voyeuristically through broad, well-lit windows; and in one particularly inspired interpolation, a Persian rug is rolled away to allow us to look in on a scene in the room below through a glass panel in the floor. Small touches testify to the production team's commitment to detail: meticulously researched incense adds atmosphere to certain rooms, and in the interval, we are invited to have our Tarot cards read, or, in true morbid Victorian fashion, to "spy on Mrs Vane in her grief" in the basement room.
Director Samuel Orange has adapted the novella himself, and his meticulous attention to detail comes from a genuine love of the source material, in spite of its notorious challenges: at heart a dark, gothic morality tale, The Picture of Dorian Gray is nonetheless packed densely with Wilde's musings on art and beauty. Quite a bit of the art theory finds its way into the production, which shows a laudable effort to convey the intricate themes of the original, but is somewhat to the detriment of pace and suspense. Wilde's characteristic witty aphorisms also find their way into the production, mostly voiced by Lord Harry Wotton, the languid, imperious aristocrat who becomes Dorian's mentor, played with wit and authority by Orange himself.
The cast are mostly very assured, particularly Aron Trausti as the vengeful brother of Dorian's rejected fiancée. River Hawkins, as Dorian, is a little mannered in the early scenes, but comes into his own later in the play, and moves with a physical grace which generates the perfect combination of beauty and menace for the fallen hero.
There are a few wobbles – a couple of technical mishaps, some ponderous narrated passages which puncture the atmosphere slightly and dilute the shocks toward the end – but overall, this is one of the most successful attempts at immersive/promenade theatre that I've seen in ages. It is a refreshingly unusual and well-executed production, fuelled by an intense engagement with the classic source material.