The Picture of Dorian Gray by John Foster (inspired by Oscar Wilde), directed by Charmaine K Parkin at the Bread and Roses Theatre, LONDON SW4 6DZNoir theatre lives, I’m relieved to say. It’s been over three years since my Crime Time post on John Foster’s probing Vigilante, an imagined encounter between Moors murderer Ian Brady and the father of one of his victims. It had been included in a programme of new writing put on in the Charing Cross Theatre in January 2012, the third of his theatre pieces to have been produced in London, rather than in and around Bournemouth, the nearest natural home for a dramatist whose day job is as a lecturer in screenwriting at the city’s university.
It’s a beautiful summer evening and the leafier streets of Clapham North are alive with something more than sunlight. It’s the anticipation of seeing perhaps Foster’s most ambitious piece, a 2-hour "free modern interpretation" of The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel, itself an update of the Faust legend in which the protagonist sells his soul to the devil in return for eternal youth. Like most of Foster’s recent theatre work (in ‘crime’ he and I go back to the days of the hard copy Shots and the early internet days of Tangled Web) – it’s a production of Doppelganger Productions, a not-for-profit organisation of which he is Artistic Director.
Taking a cue perhaps from Wilde’s own words ("Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks me: Dorian is what I would like to be) Foster has stripped down the cast of characters to three and, with a stroke or two of his pen made two of them women. Basil becomes Basel, photographer, morgue attendant and the moral centre of the piece, played by the radiant Anna Newcome; Henry becomes Henri, appropriately enough a writer of obituaries, played by a sensual, seductive Amelia Gardham. The remaining character, of course, is Dorian Gray himself played by Alessandro Babalola, challenging casting to those of a certain generation (mine!) whose benchmark in the role is the ethereally handsome Hurd Hatfield from Albert Lewin’s 1945 Hollywood version of the novel.
Needless to say Babalola is superb in the role, conceived by Foster as a celebrated present-day photographer with real-life parallels in perhaps David Bailey and/or Don McCullin along with the work of Weegee on the streets of New York. We first meet him, camera in hand, crouched over a female corpse, the latest prostitute victim we learn, of the Rain Killer, the current focus of a media more interested in titillation than enlightenment. But it’s the psychology of the reader that mostly provokes Dorian Gray, as Babalola quickly moves from contemplation to audience confrontation, providing the first aural (and visual) shock of the production, all the more powerful in the close-up, widescreen performance space of the Bread and Rose Theatre. There’s a mystery too: how is it possible that Dorian is first on the scene, ahead of the police?
Those allusions to film are, I think, relevant. Foster, after all, was first a writer for both TV and film, and his new play adapts film techniques such as the on-screen narrator and the flashback to the demands of the stage. Early on, one such flashback occurs, inking in the developing relationship with Basel. She influences Dorian’s adoption of photography, later taking the photograph, crudely altered (by cast members) at crucial stages of the play, that will henceforth indicate Dorian’s increasing depravity. Strolling on a beach, we realise her increasing feelings for Dorian (Newcome is at her most affecting here). And there are further clues to the essential nature of Babaloa’s Dorian, his admiration for instance for Camus’ The Outsider.
But it is the amoral Henri, both physically and intellectually enticing, that proves the more powerful influence. In the second half we observe the adrenalin-charged couple, fresh from a successful bank robbery, high not so much on the robbery itself, but in the horrified reactions of ‘lesser’ mortals caught in their crossfire. We also see Dorian in his role as war photographer, conscious to the moral dilemmas of his career choice, but indifferent to them. Meanwhile we realise that the activities of the Rain Killer have not ceased. The stage is set for (something like) Oscar Wilde’s own finale.
Foster’s dialogue, alternately tender, often challenging and full of substance, has been described as "half 50’s pulp novel, half T S Eliot’s The Wasteland". True enough. (Perhaps the writer was aware of cartoonist Martin Rowson’s 1990 version of The Wasteland as pulp comic book?). Noir theatre maybe my fanciful journalistic simplification, but there is little modern so-called ‘noir’ fiction that exhibits the intensity of this production.
PS This play finished its short London run last Saturday July 4. Sadly, there are currently no plans for a repeat performance. The latest Doppelganger production, supported for the first time by the Arts Council no less, is The Weevil in the Biscuit. Another Foster original, it’s an account of Robert Louis Stevenson’s bed-ridden fight, whilst resident with his wife in Bournemouth, to complete his novel The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The play will be performed at several Dorset venues over the period July 11-25**, and again in the autumn from 24 October – 4 November 2015.
No plans yet for Edinburgh… are you listening Ian Rankin?
** Details at http://doppelgangerproductions.com/