The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

The Times; Feb 14, 1975; Irving Wardle;

As John Osborne rightly says in a programme note, it is the story that makes The Picture of Dorian Gray a novel that everybody knows. Whatever you think of Wilde, it is not a book you can leave half-read.

On those terms it is a gift to the adaptor, and Osborne has produced a fairly workmanlike adaptation. The corruption of Wilde's Adonis exerts its old spell. From the first encounter with the Mephistophelean Sir Henry to the Faustian suicide, you want to see it all happening again.

The treatment sometimes suggests the old-fashioned play-doctor, especially when Osborne resorts to clubland buffers and forelock-touching proles to get information across.And in some vital passages the drama could be better stage-managed than it is in Clive Donner's production. From where I sat I saw nothing of the painter's horrified reaction when Dorian whips the cover from the infected portrait. And the climax consists of a lunge up the stairs and a quick stab to a blood-red lighting change. You get no chance to register Dorian's transformation into his painted image; much less the crucial factor that the evil face is now twisted with hypocrisy.

However, Sir Henry's epigrams fall with languid grace from the lips of Anton Rodgers, and there is a distinct fascination in watching the gradual hardening of Michael Kitchen's faun-like Dorian; achieved partly through his behaviour in company and his behaviour when alone, returning after rejecting the trusting Sibyl to find the portrait awaiting him as a mute accuser in the lonely house.

This leaves the question of why Osborne chose to adapt an over-familiar look which has already been staged and filmed. ...I can see no clear answer to this. The novel touches on issues like the cult of youth, the worship of style, and the obscure sense of impending calamity, which colour Osborne's own past work. But he has added little that seems personal or timely.

There is so much in Dorian Gray that might be interestingly clarified or unmasked. What, for instance, are the unspeakable acts Dorian is supposed to have committed; and what part does homosexuality play in the relationship of the central trio? Was Wilde hinting at what could not be named in his time, or was he merely invoking empty horrors? The choice for an adaptor is between verification and irony; but Osborne has dodged the choice.

Many thanks to Deb for digging out this review.