January 17, 2014, by Eve
I can resist anything except an invitation to a play
Last Monday, I was invited to a rehearsed reading of a new play by C.J. Wilmann. He is not, despite the name, an eccentric thespian who smokes a pipe and calls everyone ‘darling’. He’s just a nice, lovely fellow who happens to be a rather talented writer with a rather large man-crush on Oscar Wilde. In first year, I was incredibly fortunate to be cast in Mr Wilmann’s first full-length play, ‘Innocent Infidelity’, which he wrote in his final year studying English.
Two years on and Mr Wilmann has dropped the petty plot-lines of madness, adultery and casual poetry-endured murder. His new play ‘The Picture of John Gray’ deals with sexuality, human identity and the impossibility of defining love – and he throws in a peppering of death and religion – the classic Big Ones all serious young writers enjoy wrestling with.
The reading was performed in a very grimy and – apparently – very famous pub/theatre: the Old Red Lion Pub Theatre. Two minutes in I had completely forgot about the scripts – the minimal movement did not matter much as it was a predominantly sitting-and-talking type of play (as some many of Wilde’s own are). I was utterly engaged and immersed in the characters and the story.
I fell in love with Charles and Charles– the most constant example of love throughout the play – their dialogue was sweet, funny and – above all – charmingly honest. They were certainly the most likeable characters in the play.
Despite being the title character, John Gray was the character most alienated from the audience. I never seemed to know him as intimately as the Charleses or form a definite opinion of his character: he was arrogant, naïve, disdainful, playful, grimly determined. But you never knew what he was really thinking. Gray’s isolation from the audience was not a flaw – it draw attention to his complexity, he was an illustration of a difficult and muddled human being. And, our incomplete picture of him, served also to reflect his own confused image of his identity.
Yet an aspect of Gray’s character which I felt jarred awkwardly with his general persona was his flirtatious imitations of Raffalovich’s accent. In theory, on paper, I can imagine these moments to be fairly cute but in practice, on foot (so to speak), they were a bit bizarre. Ending the play on such a line did not work. This awkwardness may be averted with a different portrayal but I am not yet convinced.
The pace and style of the piece – namely, sitting-and-talking – worked well. I was never bored by the endless chatter but I felt that this was defiantly the unedited version and it does need shortened. It was particularly long even without the added time of deliberate movement and scenes changes. I think editing attention should be directed towards the Shelley’s going-to-give-evidence-maybe scene, which could have been tightened up to pinpoint its dangerous significance, and the hot air balloon scene, which had a distinctly uncertain climatic arch (up and down then up again) and could have pushed the narrative on much quicker.
A difficult issue with a play built on facts is how far the playwright assumes the audience’s prior knowledge of these facts. I hope that anyone who chooses to see a play called ‘The Picture of John Gray’ will note the allusion and will have at least a limited knowledge of Oscar Wilde. The first scene struggled with this issue. As someone who has read ‘Dorian Gray’ I was assumed by their references to who-was-who and this knowledge gave me a quick insight into the general personalities of these characters. I then felt slightly patronised (although this is maybe too strong a word) when the characters so explicitly spelt out what they were talking about. But I am well aware that we do not all come to the theatre with the same knowledge and this explanation was necessary. Perhaps I am simply harping on about this because of my hatred of scripts which consciously add highly unnatural lines simply to enlighten the audience – there was very, very little of this in the overall play; conversations flowed with a natural ease.
I was touched by the play – its simplicity of plot and complexity of content – and left in a sympathetic mood. I do not think it was a happy ending – it was not really an ending at all – their muddled lives continued after I felt the theatre. The underlying mood of fear and caution had not been destroyed and the play ended with the image of the second love, still shamed into silence.
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