Wilde boys - Matthew Bourne’s Dorian Gray

This article is from 2008.

Matthew Bourne’s Dorian Gray

Matthew Bourne is taking his biggest risk yet by revamping The Picture of Dorian Gray. Kelly Apter talks to him about sensuality, satire and the death of Heath Ledger.

As the old saying goes, the more things change the more they stay the same. Vice, corruption and hedonism have always lived among us, even if each generation likes to claim it for themselves. In 1891, when Oscar Wilde penned his first and only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, he was tapping into the late 19th century zeitgeist. Over 100 years later, Matthew Bourne is doing exactly the same, with very little tweaking.

For the past two decades, Bourne has been a recruitment officer for dance, pulling in people who previously kept a barge pole between them and the genre. Shows such as Swan Lake, Nutcracker! and The Car Man have proved you don’t have to dumb down to attract the masses. Bourne’s latest venture, however, is his boldest adaptation to date. Lifting Wilde’s cautionary tale from page to stage, without any existing dance works or musical scores to draw from.

‘It’s not the sort of story I would normally tell,’ says Bourne. ‘Because it’s very difficult to make these characters likeable. And a vulnerable area for me is not having a piece of music to start off with.’ Despite this, Bourne has risen to the challenge and created what is likely to be a highlight of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. What drew him to Wilde’s gothic tale in the first place?

‘I read the novel when I was about 19 and really loved it. Wilde suggests as much as he tells you with the language he uses and the possibilities within the story. So your mind works overtime trying to figure out these awful things that Dorian’s getting up to. It’s been on my list of things to do for years, so I thought it was about time I had a go.’

Updating the action to present day, Bourne has placed the show in the image-obsessed worlds of contemporary art and politics, using a photograph, rather than a painting, as the central focus. Dorian himself is a handsome London ‘It Boy’ who makes a pact with the devil in his pursuit of beauty and pleasure. ‘A picture in a gallery isn’t going to affect the world these days,’ says Bourne. ‘So I had to find a modern equivalent for how a person becomes an iconic image, how the world gets to know them. And today it’s through photos and advertising.’

Ordinarily, Bourne’s main sources of inspiration come from the world of film. This time, all he had to do was look at the world around him. In particular, Bourne found the recently untimely death of actor, Heath Ledger troubling. ‘I wondered what would have happened to him if he had just stayed as an actor in Perth in Australia. Even if it was an accident, it was the whole introduction to Hollywood and the availability of drugs. You’re constantly surrounded by people telling you to take things, and it destroyed this healthy young man at the height of his powers; it’s so sad.’

The meltdown and destruction of those in the public eye chalks up an increasingly large amount of column inches. And it’s easy to imagine Wilde’s eponymous character gracing the cover of Heat magazine were he alive today. ‘If you have the spotlight or the camera turned on you, it introduces you to a world of temptation that wouldn’t otherwise be available,’ says Bourne. ‘And it does destroy quite a lot of people; we see it all the time. So I think there are modern parallels in Wilde’s story, more so than there ever have been before.’

Bourne’s previous shows each had a unique quality, but one element was common to all: humour. Even if you left the theatre clutching a tear-sodden tissue (Swan Lake, Edward Scissorhands) you laughed along the way. Is it possible to inject humour into a dark tale such as Dorian Gray? ‘We had to parallel Wilde’s literary wit with a bit of visual wit, which we’ve done through a kind of social commentary on modern life. I’ve never set a piece in contemporary time before, and in some ways it’s harder to satirise your own time than it is to look back. It’s never my intention to look for humour, but we always find it in rehearsals.’

Another quality often found in Bourne’s more risqué works (The Car Man, Play Without Words) is sensuality. Given the homoerotic undertones of Wilde’s original text, Bourne has some pretty strong sexual chemistry to play with on stage. ‘It’s quite raunchy because this was our chance not to hold back or worry about the family audience. We really love embracing that audience, with shows like Nutcracker! or Edward Scissorhands, but this is a more adult piece with adult themes. And as a company we’ve become more fearless in the past year. I’ve now got people who are, within reason, up for doing anything.’

Not only is Dorian Gray a new departure for Bourne content-wise, he’ll be presenting it on the world stage. Faced with an international audience of dance fans and critics, how does he feel about premiering at the Festival? ‘It’s exciting and a bit scary at the same time, because it’s so high profile. But it makes you want to raise your game and create something for this incredibly eclectic, international audience.’

Matthew Bourne’s Dorian Gray, King’s Theatre, Leven Street, 0131 473 2000, 22-30 Aug (not 25), 8pm; 23 & 30 Aug, 2.30pm, £15-£30.

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