An All-Female Picture of Dorian Gray

A female Doctor Who, a proposed all-woman The Lord of the Flies – you can sense a cultural movement toward giving traditionally male roles to women. On Friday my husband and I saw an all-female production of Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), at the lovely nearby Watermill Theatre. Adapted by Phoebe Eclair-Powell and directed by Owen Horsley, this is a brisk 67-minute performance by three young actresses.

From the 1945 film version. By Ivan Albright (1897– 1983) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
With no intermission and no drastic scene changes, there was never the need for any of the players to leave the stage. Two of the actresses, Eva Feiler and Emily Stott, shared narration duties and rotated through all the supporting roles: mostly Dorian’s friends Lord Henry Wotton (Emily) and Basil Hallward (Eva), but also Sibyl Vane, the actress he falls for, her mother and brother, and so on – signifying their character changes through a simple prop like a flat cap, cane or ruffled cape. On the other hand, Emma McDonald, the Black British woman who played Dorian, had only that one part.

The costumes were all a variation on black and white, with Dorian in a form-fitting black dress with feathery epaulettes and the other two in more androgynous shirt and trouser combinations. A large white door frame was the only major item on stage: it served as the titular portrait’s frame and as the stage-within-the-stage for Sibyl’s performances, as well as the site for all comings and goings. Beyond that, the only stage furniture was a couple of chairs and a table with a wine bottle and some glasses on it.

I’ve never read The Picture of Dorian Gray, but it’s one of those story lines you’re probably familiar with whether or not you’ve encountered the original and/or an adaptation. Dorian, led to believe that youth and beauty are the only things that matter in life, makes a devilish pact by which he transmits his soul to the portrait Basil painted of him: the painting will age and reflect the true state of Dorian’s character, while his body remains perfect. So as he goes his merry way through life, breaking the hearts of men and women alike and pursuing pleasure everywhere from London’s opium dens to China and Mexico, his face never changes.

I thought it was particularly meaningful to examine cultural ideals of age and attractiveness with female players. However, there was an odd disconnect for me here: the original names were retained, along with male pronouns throughout. Why wasn’t it “Dora Gray”, her hard-partying friend “Henrietta”, and so on? The contrast was especially striking in moments where the characters pause to refresh their lipstick.

Well, the director answered that query – or, rather, sidestepped it – during the question and answer session that followed this short production. Horsley mentioned that Eclair-Powell only wanted to work with the play if she could have an all-female cast, and that she didn’t want to try to feminize the story in any way. She just wanted to put it out there, the same way Shakespeare might have – as with his cases of men playing woman playing men – and let audiences decide what they thought.

After a week at the Watermill, the production is moving on to a several-week tour of local schools, where it will be aimed at teenage audiences. I reckon it will be more effective in that context: the themes of vanity and selfishness should ring true for young people, and they will probably appreciate the comic flashes (e.g. when the narrators joke about who’s going to play which part, with what accent) more than I did, as well as the slightly melodramatic moments when Dorian is standing in front of the painting and telling us what ‘he’ sees.

The Three Sirens Press edition from 1931. By Ericxpenner (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
In any case, I think I’ll make Dorian Gray one of my spooky pre-Halloween reads. I’ve downloaded it from Project Gutenberg.

My rating:

 


Do you think you would have enjoyed this production, or found it off-putting?

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9 thoughts on “An All-Female Picture of Dorian Gray

  1. My problem with this would have been the fact that it was an adaptation of a novel. There is a real trend for such adaptations in the theatre at the moment and I simply don’t see the point. The force of a narrative written to be read and that written to be performed are entirely different things. There are young playwrights out there who are desperate to get their original work performed, work that is being written specifically for women to perform rather than having to distort the original in this way. Why not give them a chance? Box office, I suppose. People will go for a name they know rather than risk something new.

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    1. You’re probably right — I, for one, would never have gone along if it was new work by a no-name writer. I vaguely knew the Dorian Gray story and was curious as to how it would work on stage, knowing it had multiple film versions. It will be interesting to see how my experience of reading the novel differs. Seeing an adaptation before reading the book is my preferred way round to do things.

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  2. Interesting. I think if it had been made as a play in the first place, it would have been more interesting to just reverse the casting. But then I’m not often keen with plays being mucked around with, having seen too many “clever” versions of Shakespeare in my time. So the jury’s out, there!

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    1. I suppose directors feel they have to do something different with Shakespeare as otherwise it’s been done to death. But I’m still so unfamiliar with the lesser plays that I like just seeing a straight version, such as the outdoor Comedy of Errors performance we saw at The Vyne in August. Traditional costumes and all male actors.

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  3. I really like this idea, but then I’m a massive fan of gender-flipped casting in general, and I actually find it more distracting when pronouns are swapped. The Picture of Dorian Gray would be a very different piece of work if the characters actually *were* all women – the tenor of Wilde’s writing about selfishness and vanity, for instance, would have different implications – and so I think the compromise of keeping original male pronouns but simply letting the audience see an unexpected female face and shape in a male role is a good one. (Likewise, when I saw King Lear at the Globe last week, Kent was played by a woman, whom the characters referred to as “the Duchess of Kent” – but to me that suggests a totally different relationship between a king and a courtier than the one that Lear and Kent have. Perhaps I wouldn’t feel that way if the play had been a contemporary one, or even from a later era.)

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