Going above and beyond the source material, The Trial of Dorian Gray demonstrates excellent acting talent and proves a promising debut for both PaperLight Theatre as well as its director.
As a continuation of the famous novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, The Trial of Dorian Gray tells the story more than a hundred years later. Focusing on a Gray who has lived an eternal life of sin, now in the profession of photography and its superficial element of beauty, Gray spends the night with a mysterious woman in red, Mikala, who slowly unravels the titular characters past in a build-up for a chance of redemption. Steeped in philosophical thought and sometimes metaphysical commentary, the script is a backwards and forwards of intense conversation about Gray’s life and the possibility to do something meaningful with immortality. While the writing itself is littered with flowery dialogue and fails to recognise the true magnitude of the elements it plays with; the performance by PaperLight Theatre in association with the University of Southampton manages to move past its source material and truly conjure some entertaining magic.
Fundamentally, I’m not a fan of the script, and you would think this would inhibit me from going into the performance. I was reserved, sceptical and slightly worried about how the theatre company would work with the source material. Imagine my surprise then when its two main leads manage to move past the source material and imbue it with a sense of malice life and haunting energy that you become enchanted with their onstage presence that it’s almost trance-like. Behind every word, there’s a sense that Harry Seager’s Dorian and Mazzy Westwood’s Mikala believe in their parts undeniably, and execute them with such intensity that you feel the energy of the performance.
That’s not to say the performance has lots of action or fast-paced dialogue sparring, but the conviction in which the actors deliver their words with is genuinely mesmerising, and you find yourself becoming tranced by its constant pondering on morality, guilt and sin. Perhaps though the most intense moments are in the excellent but subtle use of proxemics. There’s a constant charade of Dorian forcing himself upon Michaela and Westwood’s facial expressions, as well as body language, are always executed with sheer perfection, feeling real and life-like. When the space between Dorian and Mikala closes in, there’s still a lingering sense of tension in the sudden stiffness in Michaela that calls out to the audience and enhances the perception of vulnerability we have of her. Where this perception slowly changes throughout the play as the truth about Mikala becomes revealed, Westwood imbues her character with an uncompromising strength that even shines through during the characters more vulnerable moments. That’s not to say Seager’s turn at Dorian is any less masterful, embodying the role precisely as anticipated with a nice mixture of charm and malice. At times he reaches great depths of haunting bitterness as well as building upon the egotism that a character like Dorian would have before his dramatic conclusion. However, having a female lead with such a magmatic presence when placed next to Dorian Gray becomes something new and exciting and becomes a central force that playwright Gabriel Bergmoser feels focused on. With Mikala becoming the only female to outsmart and manipulate Dorian, she becomes an interesting character to study and think about, a sense of unrivalled pride as she comes away as the ultimate winner, with Westwood’s performance navigating the complexity and changes of emotion with unbounded confidence.
Another factor you would think that would limit the show would be its low budget, minimalist set. Yet, contrary to thought once again, every prop, set-piece and choice of lighting is just as well thought out that it enhances the play rather than detracts from it. As an amateur-dramatics society, they often seem to go above and beyond this limitation and create creative solutions for any issue. The most exciting set-piece was the fire-place that sits in the centre backstage, which was built for the performance. While simplistic and perhaps not life-like, the commitment to go above and beyond with little details is admirable and help develop a more lived-in world that if they had substituted the set-piece for a bookcase or some other bulky set-piece. In fact, where the label of “student-drama” may have seemed like a limitation is changed into its strength, showcasing the director’s ambition not to let anything prevent his vision. Even when technical difficulties happen midperformance, the director was fast to rectify these and not inhibit the performance while the actors seamlessly continued, unaffected by the outwards stratosphere that they have no control of.
It’s only a shame then when minor things mar such a captivating performance. With a reliance to have a little too much side-view dialogue, sometimes the audience fails to see the face of the actor on stage, which is a shame because both actors go to painstaking lengths to use their facial expressions as a way to further embody their character. This then keyed with a sometimes static approach to blocking, especially with an over-reliance to have the actors sat down in chairs, means that it becomes a play of words. As Bergmoser’s script can be arduously descriptive and wordy, it would have been nice to see a more significant claim of space, more shifting movements and higher stakes taken in thinking how the characters can claim the area around them. However, these issues seem recognised in the director’s approach and while it’s not perfect, it is far better than you would expect most people would do during their directorial debut.
The Trial of Dorian Gray undeniably defied my expectations. Both actors are moving past the limitations that the script sometimes contains and giving mesmerising performances that makes this feel so much more than a theatre company’s first show. While not perfect, it is an exemplary example of what a director’s passion, some hard work and a little bit of faith can produce. I would whole-heartedly recommend that absolutely everyone see this play, whether you’re a skeptic like myself, an Oscar Wilde lover or drama enthusiast.
The Trial of Dorian Gray will be performed at NST City on February 20th-21st as part of the NST ‘Make is SO ‘ festival.