Matthew Bourne on ‘Dorian Gray’ at Sadler’s Wells

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Donald Hutera asks Matthew Bourne about his ‘dark and relentless’ intepretation of Oscar Wilde’s ‘Dorian Gray’ – heading to Sadler’s Wells this week

  • Matthew Bourne on ‘Dorian Gray’ at Sadler’s Wells

    Matthew Bourne

  • Matthew Bourne is one of Britain’s most visible and commercially viable choreographers. Together he, his company, New Adventures, and
    dance-theatre productions like the male ‘Swan Lake’, ‘The Car Man’ and ‘Edward Scissorhands’ have earned name-brand recognition internationally. ‘There’s not any night of the year now,’ he claims, ‘when there isn’t a New Adventures show somewhere in the world.’

    Such success doesn’t appear to have gone to Bourne’s head. It certainly hasn’t corrupted him in the way that being an object of desire destroys the titular lead of Bourne’s latest undertaking. Loosely based on Oscar Wilde’s sole novel, ‘Dorian Gray’ is whizzing down to Sadler’s Wells for two weeks, direct from its world premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival.

    First published in 1890, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ is a cautionary horror tale about an increasingly decadent, dangerous young charmer whose hidden portrait undergoes a ghastly deterioration while the man himself retains his striking, ageless beauty. Bourne has long wanted to
    translate this juicy source material for the stage. ‘I kept rejecting the idea because of the unsympathetic characters, and a story that didn’t seem to have any redeeming features. But I’ve realised there’s a reason everyone’s excited about it: they secretly love Dorian. It’s like Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett. You like those characters so much that you almost forget that they’re killing people and making them into pies.’

    Bourne finds a relevance in Wilde’s tale for today’s celebrity-chasing, youth-obsessed society. ‘For me it’s not about just a picture that changes. It’s about someone who changes inside, in his soul, by becoming a sort of icon.’ But what kind of contemporary icon should Bourne and company’s Dorian Gray be? The answer is advertising. ‘He becomes a desirable image, like a face for a fragrance. I thought that would be a good way of connecting him with the wider world, and something that people would recognise.’

    Bourne was also keen to portray the impact that being thrust into the spotlight might have on someone young and impressionable. ‘Suddenly you’re the most beautiful person in the world,’ he says, ‘and everyone wants a piece of you or to be your friend.’ In this context he mentions how affected he was by Heath Ledger’s death. ‘Here was this beautiful, talented guy who seemed to be quite nervy and probably couldn’t handle all the attention very well. And suddenly he’s not here any more. It’s crazy.’

    Another, less emotional link was spotting Orlando Bloom at a party last Christmas. ‘He was so ordinary,’ says Bourne, ‘so not the person you would turn around to stare at walking down the street: pointy-featured, short, a little bit hunched. Nothing stood out, really.’ The encounter provided Bourne with an insight into the marketing of human product: ‘It’s about making people feel that here’s someone who’s really something, and you’re less special.’

    Bourne regards ‘Dorian Gray’ as ‘essentially a very public, high-profile experiment.’ With a cast of 12, plus five musicians, it’s operating on a significantly smaller scale than other New Adventures productions like ‘Scissorhands’ (which returns to Sadler’s Wells from December 2). The
    show’s relatively modest size aligns it with Bourne’s ‘Play Without Words’. Like that National Theatre hit, ‘Dorian’ features a score by Terry Davies and designs by Bourne’s brilliant, long-term collaborator, Lez Brotherston. The unspecified but definitely contemporary setting they’ve chosen, Bourne says, has shifted him and Brotherston out of their creative comfort zone.

    ‘We so love the past, particularly the ’60s and the ’50s, that we always fall back on that a bit. It’s more difficult to observe what’s around you now, but I’m enjoying finding the references I need.’ Other changes are being rung on Wilde’s original text, including swapping the sexes of some supporting characters. Lord Henry, a key influence on Dorian’s thinking, is now Lady H, while Sibyl, the actress Dorian falls for, is transformed into Cyril, a dancer. This genderbending downplays the novel’s implicit sexism and emphasises its underlying homoerotic content.

    Bourne describes the modernised Dorian himself as akin to a serial killer in the mode of ‘American Psycho’ or ‘Dexter’. As for the dance element, Bourne reveals, ‘I’m going to try and physicalise everything in a slightly surreal, abstract, dream-like way, even if it makes the piece more obscure at times than others I’ve done. I know that a lot of our audience like clarity, and I like to please an audience. But with this one I won’t be delivering it to people on a plate so much.’

    Obviously, this being a dance show, Wilde’s epigrammatic wit will be absent. ‘Social observation will probably come into it,’ says Bourne, ‘but I’m not looking for it to be a laugh-fest. I hope to be true to what Wilde was really saying in the novel. I’d like to leave people with something that’s quite dark and relentless.’

    ‘Matthew Bourne's Dorian Gray’ is at Sadler’s Wells Sept 2-14.

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