The location of The Alchemic Order’s production of The Picture of Dorian Gray is so secret I almost couldn’t find it. Eventually, on ringing the bell of an unassuming Greenwich townhouse, I was greeted by a moustachioed man in Victorian butler’s attire, who ushered me into “the home of Mr Gray”.
The production promises much: “A journey through time, space and imagination… Breathing life into synergy of mediums, proposing a new ritual. Enter the realm of aesthetic transfiguration.” I’m not exactly sure what that means but whatever it is, this play doesn’t do it.
The butler explains that guests are free to wander through the play as it unfolds. The problem is, nobody does. This is partly because the space is far too small for the number of people (in the region of 20 guests per performance), making it infuriatingly difficult to follow the action. The entire first scene was played out with nobody watching it, the audience all sitting uncomfortably in the next room wondering who would be first to break ranks and get up. It makes you realise how crucial the masks in Punchdrunk’s immersive theatre are: anonymity breeds confidence.
Just as we were getting the hang of squashing into corners to see what was going on, the action moved into the garden, where it remained for the majority of the play, with actors popping up in various windows and doorways. Unfortunately it was a cold, wet evening and I spent large swathes of it yearning for the warmth of the house.
The “set” is, for the most part, pretty nifty, with an immaculately rendered Victorian tea parlour and a sumptuous gothic bedroom, in which the beautiful Mr Gray sleeps away his days. The players appear from secret cubbyholes and mirrors swing from the ceiling to transform and warp the space. There are, however, lapses that are difficult to forgive. One scene has the audience viewing the action through a glass floor; from where I was sitting I could see a stack of plastic paint pots and a video camera, which somewhat broke the spell.
There’s actually very little in the way of interaction; it’s not so much immersive theatre as watching a play standing up and occasionally shuffling into a different room. The stand-out scene, set in a Parisian opium den, is also the most disappointing. Incense hangs heavy in the air as prostitutes and addicts rock back and forth on tatty, exotic rugs. What better place to engage with the audience, perhaps pass around a shisha pipe? But we were, as ever, ignored and, after a few minutes, were turfed back out into the miserable garden.
Things aren’t helped by some very dodgy sound and lighting. One section that’s delivered through speakers was all but inaudible, and ghostly lights flashed on and off in disused rooms at arbitrary points throughout the night.
The acting in the first half is fairly tight, the odd stumble notwithstanding. Samuel Orange delivers Lord Henry Wotton’s serpentine dialogue with menacing poise, while River Hawkins’ Dorian Gray is believable in his transformation from innocent ideologue to narcissistic misanthrope. There is no chemistry, though, no indication that these characters inhabit the same universe, just a series of disparate performances. And just as the combination of temperature and excessive shuffling eventually eroded the audience’s will to live, so these performances fizzled out; as things drew to a close, everyone was just going through the motions.
It ends, appropriately, with a spectacularly bad decision: axing the novel’s climactic final scene. Why bother producing an interactive Dorian Gray if you don’t let the audience go into the attic? It took me a few seconds to realise the play had ended, after which I felt both relieved and cheated.
It’s clear that a lot of love has been poured into this production, and you’re in such close proximity to the action that you find yourself willing it to be better than it is. But for £35 a ticket, I expect far more. Perhaps in a grand old manor, with space to mill and explore – or at least breathe – the play could take flight (apparently this production is staged in the home of actor/director Samuel Orange – brother of Take That’s Jason – which casts the glass floor into the bedroom in a new light). As it is, you feel like a bird in a cheaply gilded cage.
Maybe Alchemic Order can take solace in a line from Oscar Wilde himself: “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” At least they got 783 words out of me.
First published in City A.M.