‘The Picture of John Gray’, Old Red Lion

‘God isn’t watching you, Dorian. Nobody is.’

C J Wilmann’s new play explores a semi-fictionalised account of the life of poets and artists associated with Oscar Wilde at the time of his fall from public grace on account of ‘gross indecency’.

John Gray, a poet and Roman Catholic, was Wilde’s inspiration for his famous portrayal of the corrupt and beautiful Dorian Gray. The play follows his falling out of Wilde’s fickle romantic favours, and his relationship with fellow poet and gay rights advocate ‪Marc-André Raffalovich (Christopher Tester).

The setting is that of the late nineteenth century: the same Victorian drawing rooms and tailored waistcoats as those that set The Picture of Dorian Gray. Designer Rosanna Vize and lighting designer Matt Haskins make great use of minimal décor and props to bring to life lavish upperclass digs, which then slowly disintegrate into destitution as society’s ‘sodomites’ fall out of favour, both socially and financially.

Patrick Walshe McBride is excellent as the young John Grey, striving inexpertly to mimic Wilde’s wit and trying to fit into his upperclass society. The real John Grey was part of London’s Rhymers’ Club – a poetry circle that included WB Yeats, who met for dinner at Ye Olde Chesire Cheese pub in Fleet Street. Some of the poets’ works are included in the play, which gives a nice insight into their romanticism and sensibilities.

Other key figures in Wilde’s life appear as well: the two Charles’s (portrayed by Jordan McCurrach and Oliver Allan), the story’s voices of (sassy) sensibleness. Bosie, Wilde’s most prominent and long-term lover, was arguably the inspiration for the ostentatious and insolent Lord Henry of the novel. Ultimately, it is his reckless actions that play a role in Wilde’s downfall. Wilde himself does not appear as a character but haunts the scene like the well-dressed ghost that he is.

The play remains reasonably accurate in its historical account of the events, which gives it the voyeuristic quality of a biopic. The characters face public scorn and ostracism, if not legal repercussions, as Victorian London loses its patience with their sinful lifestyles. Of course, some of the themes are pertinent today as, sadly, even today homosexuality has not reached universal acceptance. Grey’s struggle to reconcile his religion with his sexuality may well be set in the present. Raffalovich, on the other hand, evolves both socially and spiritually, without calling into question his reasons for loving another.

The play is a delightful piece of theatre; the acting is superb and the story offers a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes of the playwright’s social circle. It stumbles only slightly in its indecision between historical portrayal, modern day parable, or adaptation. However, it is an overall excellent production and well worth attending.

The Picture of John Gray is showing until Saturday 30 August at:

Old Red Lion Theatre
418 St John Street

Tickets: 020 7837 7816

Photo: Miriam Mahoney

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