In Haunt

Body dysmorphia, gym culture and masculinity are central features of Dorian – a fascinating new stage version of Oscar Wilde’s 1890 classic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. The man behind the re-writing is the award-winning Andrew McMillan, currently senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at The Manchester Writing School (Manchester Metropolitan University) – and the show is coming to The Lowry this 30 October – 1 November, part of a 2019 tour.

 Dorian

Dorian marks a playwriting debut for McMillan (pictured below), a poet whose award-winning first collection Physical and second collection Playtime, explore the tensions of masculinity, sexuality and pressures of the body. In turn, he could be seen to further explore these themes through Dorian… unearthing dark truths and tensions in a whole new way. Urgent and intimate, the play seeks to ask questions such as – what body image pressures do men face today? How do they deal with online beautification? And what are the dangers if this is not addressed?

A commissioned piece by Proper Job Theatre Company – based in Huddersfield – Dorian is part of a ‘Monster Trilogy’ series of classical works rewritten for the stage. It follows a retelling of Medusa by writer Helen Mort (also of The Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University) and an adaptation of Nosferatu by McMillan’s father, the well-known poet and broadcaster Ian McMillan. So what happens when Wilde’s tale of a changing portrait is given the ‘monster’ treatment?

Dorian delves into the deep complexities of male identity, vanity and manipulated appearances. This is a world where men confront their changing bodies against impossible ideals, project perfect images and yet feel internally frustrated. Sounds unpleasant? This approach of Dorian comes creepily close to the contemporary pressures many men face in the search for the ‘perfect body’. This is also something McMillan explored in light of gym culture on Radio 4’s ‘Body of Work’ programme.

Although body image ideals have existed through the ages – consider the cultural practices and costume of previous centuries for example, including in the times of Wilde himself – the current day provides its own pressure. Through factors such as social media, the popularity of ‘gym culture’, men are prescribed ever-changing practices to push their bodies. More muscle. Carb cutting. More hair. Less fat. Practices such as ‘airbrushing’ and ‘catfishing’ abound –a shifting lexicon to refer to the ability of modern technology and expectations to enhance the physicality to the extreme. Magazines and screens show images of toned-up torsos, bare chests, tense arms.

And yet recent reports have highlighted the ever-present dangers of this prescribed masculinity – including the rise of muscle dysmorphia and gym addiction. As early as 2015 in fact, concerns were raised that an estimated one in every 10 men training in UK gyms could be suffering with muscle dysmorphia, also nicknamed ‘bigorexia’ – an addictive relationship with building muscle. Body dysmorphia (Body dysmorphic disorder) appears to be on the increase. A range of negative impacts threaten both self and social esteem – and battles take place in thoughts and flesh.

 Andrew McMillan By Fabrice Gagos

Therefore, McMillan’s writing of Dorian shows an acute sensitivity to significant issues of the day. Yet it also draws powerful parallels with the pressures Wilde himself (and indeed his characters) faced – a 19th century man often presented as a bohemian, beautified figure yet internally riven with insecurity and negative feelings. Through re-engaging with an older narrative, McMillan highlights how a range of expectations and ideals still persist as attached to the male body. It makes for a fascinating, transfixing and intense theatrical experience.

 HAUNT spoke to Andrew McMillan to find out more…

Hello Andrew. Dorian is a retelling of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray – how did the concept of this creative retelling come about?

“Proper Job already knew they wanted to work with the Dorian story, and the idea of setting in a gym, and exploring these kind of central themes - that seemed to come really quickly; it seemed the obvious location to let Wilde loose in.”

Why retell an old classic rather than writing a completely new concept?

“Wilde’s novel is really interesting because everyone could tell you what the basic premise of the plot is, even though very few people have read the original. What that gives you is a really solid foundation to play with. The play is indeed haunted, sometimes literally by the language - which I suppose speaks to some wider themes- a thing which is recognisable, but not quite…”

Dorian explores themes such as male vanity and body dysmorphia – intense and often difficult subjects. How did these themes most profoundly display themselves to you in Wilde’s novel… and what did you choose to keep (as well as sacrifice) when adapting this for the stage?

“Essentially you have a theme of outward appearance against inner feeling, and a sense that a true self isn’t necessarily reflected in surface appearance.  We have an image, or rather several ‘portraits’ in the play, in the case of ‘Progress Pictures’ which Dorian is taking. Dorian’s body is changing, but he can’t see this in the pictures; that’s the twist we’ve been playing with in terms of thinking about the dysmorphic aspect of the play.”

Dorian

Why does engaging with such themes matter to you?

“I’m always and endlessly fascinated by masculinity, by class, by violence; by the intersections of all those three things - and one of the key places where that happens is the gym. I’ve come through eating disorders myself, and now am into the gym and training culture.  There’s a really interesting correlation, actually more apparent in women than men, between former anorexics who go on to be competitive body-builders; it’s about control, and a regime which allows one to feel ownership of one’s own body. When I was living with eating disorders, I, naturally, got a lot of sympathy. But I think at the other end of the scale, we see men in the gym, taking steroids, trying to bulk and never feeling big enough and in many ways its two sides of the same coin; one we might tend to mock, one we might tend to have sympathy for. By putting them side by side in the same play, we might be able to consider why that is.”

 

Many people may associate your writing with your poetry; often powerful and moving encounters with the male body and masculinity. Dorian marks your debut play. How did writing for stage for perhaps change your perspective on engaging with the male body (compared to poetry) and what do you think theatre as a form lends to this?

“Theatre allows what a poem might have to hold implicitly to be explicit; there’s also a real sense that stage just allows for a larger scope. A poem is a glimpse, a moment, it doesn’t need to know what happened before or after- whereas here there are character arcs and narratives to play with. The whole body, rather than a small part, can be played with.”

Dorian

How have you found the process of writing for theatre? Would you do it again?

“It’s been exciting,. Writing is such a lonely pursuit, but this has been a collaboration. I think I would do it again (but ask me again when we’ve heard what audiences think!).”

Some people allude to The Picture of Dorian Gray as a Gothic novel or at least Gothic-inspired. Would you say Dorian still continues to engage with The Gothic? If so, how?

“It is indeed. We have monstrous, twisted, and macabre characters, playing out in a world which is recognisable, but also heightened and distorted.”

Dorian comes to the The Studio at The Lowry theatre in Salford on 30 October - 1 November 2019, the last venue as part of an Autumn 2019 tour. It will be at other Northern venues during October with details here.

By Emily Oldfield 

Image 1: Dorian - Proper Job Theatre Co - L to R: Chris Casey as Harry and Rick Ferguson as Dorian

Image 2: Andrew McMillan - photograph by Fabrice Gagos

Image 3: Dorian - Proper Job Theatre Co - Rick Ferguson as Dorian (front) and Chris Casey as Harry

Image 4: Dorian - Proper Job Theatre Co - Elizabeth Harborne as Sarah and Chris Casey as Harry

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