In Haunt

Ever strived towards ‘a new you’ – the slogan so often seen on magazines, splashed across the media? Or perhaps you have seen people working towards it; in the gym, in photo updates, in the mirror? Well, holding its own mirror up to the image-led culture we are encouraged to engage with is Dorian – a dark new stage version of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which came to The Studio at The Lowry in Salford on 30 October (until 1 Nov). It is presented by Proper Job Theatre Company as the final in their ‘Monster Trilogy’ of classic retellings - also including Nosferatu (2015) and Medusa (2017) – and marks the playwriting debut of acclaimed poet Andrew McMillan (read the full interview with him here), with the play directed by James Beale. 

Dorian

Rather than relying on the narrative of Wilde’s novel (first published in 1890 in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, before being released as a book), this is a play boldly stripping back the story: McMillan’s fast-paced script more of an intense engagement with its themes and highlighting their ongoing, even disturbing, relevance today. Vanity, insecurity and idolatry come to the stage as Dorian delves under the skin of the social construct ‘to be beautiful’.

This was a construct very much at work in Wilde’s writing, with the protagonist fixing his fears (and fantasies) around a portrait, an image of himself, aging on his behalf. Dorian displays a picture for the digital age – Rick Ferguson taking the title role – a middling 50s Dorian yearning for a better body, ‘to be bigger’. Expressive acting from Ferguson fuels emotion high in the room from the onset, our attention attuned to man who clearly wants, craves, to change himself. So begins the re-invention. He signs up for the gym and is encouraged by the instructor Harry (Chris Casey playing this character with a clever campness that touches on the creepy) to document his ‘progress’ via photo and video, all whilst aiming towards a grotesquely manipulated image of himself, as created by the character of Sarah – an ‘image optimisation specialist’. In other words, a picture manipulator. And in the age of Photoshop and filters, how many of us are more guilty of that than we may first think?

Manipulation and exaggeration occurs in the play on multiple levels – the characters themselves presented as exaggerated caricatures of a diverse group of people living in the modern age; allowing the play to become a kind of satire, instead of a condemnation of social media, technology and the practices that exist around it. Rather than condemning the audience, Dorian draws our attention to how we can be simultaneously both complicit and victims within a system fuelled by self-insecurity, and the production provides a particularly insightful encounter with the oft under-discussed male perspective on issues such as; gym culture, crises of body image, need for approval.

Carefully constructed, two key story arcs underpin the play, both building on this consideration of body image– the first being Dorian’s 6-month quest to ‘Get Hench with Harry’, motivated by the digitally-created ideal picture of himself. The second is the strain faced by his son Sam, as he strives for success with his band (in which Sarah is also involved), relying particularly on having high-quality vlogs and social media updates on the musical project.  Actor Neil Balfour creates a real zany flair about the character of Sam, providing areas of comic relief – an important consideration given the intended intensity of the production, running for an hour and twenty-five minutes without interval.

Yet it is seeing the comic, loveable side of Sam that makes watching his struggles all-the-more upsetting; this young man working himself harder and harder, to the bone, to ‘look the part’ on camera. Sarah’s image-led advice, actor Elizabeth Harborne infusing her words with an acidic memorability, linger in the mind long after.

In turn, a skilled cast combine with tight, yet sensitive direction – bringing to life a loaded script with more than few elements of the Gothic grotesque: also a feature of Wilde’s original. This is amplified through the set design choices, linking a number of screens to the stage that play a part in the performance; cleverly making the audience, in effect, voyeurs of the characters’ attempts to construct and document ‘new versions’ of themselves. An added ‘window-like’ structure that  moves around the set, compartmentalising character interactions and in some instances, isolating them, also skilfully emphasises how perspectives can be pigeon-holed.

There are ‘selfies’ and vlogs, feed updates and phone calls, all adding to a mood of overload. A case of the modern condition? The dark side of the digital age? We even see the cracks in gym instructor Harry start to show through: actor Casey clearly in-tune with what it is to give a glimpse of vulnerability, before topping it up with more vigour. A character in conflict with his façade, battling with his body, but even more his mind. Many of us are.

An interesting consideration then, is what audience members with little or no engagement with social media and the online world might think of the production – and there is a risk that its centrality to the consideration of the big issue of body image could potentially alienate some viewers from engaging fully with the fundamental theme. However, I think this is avoided due to a surprising element I wasn’t expecting to feature so heavily within the play – music and creativity.

A number of points in the play are introduced with or segue into each other thanks to keys and vocals from both Sarah and Sam – this feature giving the production real performative flair as well as developing the pace. It also hits home the underlying point – and crucially, a point that prevents the play from being weighed down with pessimism - the importance in engaging with what we can create with our talents and passions, rather than our bodies. Dorian drives further discussion and awareness of what can seem like the all-consuming push for a ‘better body’, and invites us to look at ourselves... and the talents and potentials, central to self-respect, that lie within. A fascinating debut from Andrew McMillan and testament to Proper Job Theatre’s evident passion for thought-provoking innovative theatre that fuels discussion long after.

By Emily Oldfield

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

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