“We are living in an age of unrivalled beastliness”
The life of Oscar Wilde has been much explored, not least in the theatre with De Profundis and The Judas Kiss just two recent examples, but CJ Wilmann’s new play The Picture of John Gray takes a different angle on the familiar events by focusing on others who were in his circle and how they were affected by the scandal that engulfed the writer and eventually claimed his life. The fresh-faced and devout poet John Gray was one of those men, a lover of Wilde’s and reportedly the inspiration for the character of Dorian Gray, and Wilmann’s play adroitly explores this slice of gay life anew.
Though Wilde is oft mentioned, he never actually appears here, his presence is merely felt and as Patrick Walshe McBride’s youthful Gray burns brightly and briefly in Oscar’s life, he spends more and more time in The Vale, the artist’s studio of couple Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon that formed the salon for the group. There, his head is turned by the French Jewish literary critic Marc-André Raffalovich and an intense relationship forms between the two, right at the moment that the Bosie-led scandal explodes and lands Wilde in court and then in jail.
McBride manages to convey the duality of Gray’s nature beautifully, as his unmistakeable passion for the Frenchman comes up hard against his increasingly devout Catholicism, and he is more than matched by Christopher Tester’s aching emotional eloquence as Raffalovich, their Berlin-set scene is one of the most quietly devastating of the year. There’s strong supporting work from Oliver Allan and Jordan McCurrach as the Charleses who espy the danger of homosexual indiscretion and do their best to protect their friends, even as their own position in society becomes threatened.
The presence of Bosie – a vividly extravagant performance by Tom Cox brimming with cruel seduction – is the most direct link to Wilde and though his first entrance works well, a late reappearance felt less so, a symptom perhaps of the rather convoluted ending to the play which doesn’t quite satisfy the expected emotional beats. But Wilmann has fashioned a most fascinating play out of a subject that may otherwise have felt overworked and the veins of quiet, but hugely stirring, emotion that run through it make it well worth a trip to the Old Red Lion.