Review: The Trial of Dorian Gray

8 February 2019

To quote Hannah Gadsby in her award-winning stand-up show Nanette: “Nobody is born ahead of their time. Artists don’t invent zeitgeists! They respond to it.” Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray held a mirror to the darker side of humanity that was seen but not heard. The book was censored and heavily edited precisely because it was published evidence of an open secret condemned to exist only in the shadows. The homosexual content in the original copy was later used as evidence against Wilde at his later trial for his own sexuality, which resulted in his incarceration for three years.

As a writer of the Aesthetic movement, Oscar Wilde was not born ahead of his time. But while homosexuality and its representations in media and culture have existed for centuries, the norms of the society in which Wilde existed meant that The Picture of Dorian Gray was controversial and, in such a way, radical. When I agreed to review The Trial of Dorian Gray at the Courthouse Hotel, written by Gabriel Bergmoser and directed by Peter Blackburn, I felt that for the play to do its origins justice it would have to reach similar heights.

I am no theatre connoisseur. In my eyes, what makes a play good is its ability to make me feel. In this vein, I believe all of the arts – whether it be music, literature, theatre or visual – have a common goal: to move the audience. It doesn’t have to be that deep. I appreciate the fear induced by a horror movie, the comedic value of a good comedy skit, the talent behind a skilled paintbrush. I don’t need a life altering experience every time I encounter art, but it has to elicit some kind of reaction in me.

Unfortunately, the only thing I really felt while watching The Trial of Dorian Gray was ambivalence.

It is perhaps ambitious to stage a play which is essentially a long conversation between two characters against a minimalist set. However, the stage design was clever: with the audience and the actors on the same level in a medium-sized, upstairs room at a pub, it felt like I was spectating an interaction, rather than watching a show. Yet, without any bells and whistles, a phenomenal script is needed to pull it off and hold the attention. And at the end of the day, the interaction I fell privy to for over an hour didn’t hold my attention.

Not because the writing was bad or the concept was ill thought through, but because if I wanted to see another lanky white man slink around a stage waxing existential about how hard he’s had it, I would have just waited until the Melbourne Comedy Festival. Because while it reflected some of the anxieties of our time – climate change, morality, the meaning of life – it didn’t say anything that hasn’t already been said by countless others. Admittedly, the influence of Wilde’s beloved Aestheticism is clear, in the clever dialogue, dynamic blocking, and two attractive and talented leads. However, Aestheticism came to be at a time defined by ideological debate and belief. Its proponents believed that art could and should exist for beauty’s sake, rather than as a socio-political tool wielded as a means of defining norms. It is not surprising that Wilde, as a gay man, would embrace a movement which advocated personal pleasure over conventional morality, but The Picture of Dorian Gray is not a mindless promoter of unrestrained hedonism. Rather, it provides a commentary on the dangers of pursing one’s desires to the point of destruction. Thus, Wilde wrote a story with a moral: All excess, as well as renunciation, brings its own punishment. He wrote something that nobody else was writing, offering a perspective nobody else was offering. That is what made The Picture of Dorian Gray so renowned, so contentious.

 While The Trial of Dorian Gray indeed touched on these important themes, it needed to be more than philosophical banter and sexual tension. We are living in a time of crisis – the earth is not doomed to one day go up in flames, because it is already on fire. The Industrialisation Wilde so loathed as a symbol of humanity’s demise into profitability and utility has brought us full circle, in the powerful’s pursuit of pleasure, to our own destruction. One cannot produce art removed from the context of our time, because time produces us. What was radical then, is not radical now. To effectively bring Dorian Gray into the 21st century, Bergmoser and Blackburn needed to push Aestheticism beyond its boundaries, to throw in more than just a reference to the impending doom of our planet. Instead of over an hour of a privileged man explaining to us that virtue is just a construct, the creatives could have relativised it by intertwining more discussion of the intersections of morality with social identities. They had the perfect opportunity in casting the gifted Zimbabwean-Australian actress Ratidzo Mambo as Michaela, to explore the difference in cultural standards of acceptable behaviour between white and non-white Australians. The role of economic status in such perceptions of propriety was touched on when Michaela confronts Dorian about his treatment of her grandparents, with the implication that they were of a lower social class. The topic of Dorian’s bisexuality was referenced, and yet the changing reality of that throughout the course of a century wasn’t discussed. To make a show which ponders on morality to such an extent, yet to focus it almost exclusively on the aesthetic philosophy of the late nineteenth century – which, to be frank, is a luxurious philosophy to dedicate oneself to – seems self-indulgent, and  honestly, a bit wanky. It stuck the script in a time-warp, because the question of morality in 2019 begs so much more.

Perhaps to hold it up against its ancestor is unfair, but it is always risky business to carry on someone else’s legacy. What irked me the most was the conclusion. Michaela turns out to be some avenging angelic figure sent to find out if Dorian has changed enough to be released from the curse of eternal life. Of course, he has spent the majority of an hour trying to convince her that his way of life is justified, enviable even – and ultimately, that she should join him. She walks away, leaving him crumpled on the floor at the prospect of such an existence. Such an ending felt lazy, and cliché. It echoes the same feeling of a book that finishes with “and then she woke up.” It erases the point of Wilde’s original. Dorian dies of his own doing, driven to destruction. He was not seduced by the Devil and does not need to be saved by God; Dorian fell prey to man’s folly, power and pleasure. He fell prey to the individualistic culture perpetuated through capitalism and patriarchal values, by which one man gains from another’s misfortune. We live in a man-made crisis, and there is no room for God or the Devil in our own mess.

Additional Note: Post submitting this review, I did a little further research and found reports which indicate that Wilde’s disparagement of normative “morality” further extended to seducing young boys. While they may have been above the ‘legal’ age of consent of that time – 13 – he sought out those who were not only significantly younger, but also significantly less powerful in terms of socio-economic status than himself. Yet again, even men who have such a revered place in LGBT history prove to be disappointing. Of course, the courts at the time of Wilde’s trial were not concerned with the age of those who they viewed as evidence of his criminal behaviour, but with their gender. However perhaps the message of Dorian Gray shines even clearer when one considers the author himself pursued his own pleasures at the cost of others: Wilde certainly proved his own point.

The Trial of Dorian Gray was presented at the Courthouse Hotel as part of Midsumma Festival.

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