A new online adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s classic play, The Picture of Dorian Gray starring Fionn Whitehead and directed by Theatr Clwyd’s Artistic Director Tamara Harvey will stream online in March.
Set in a profile pic-obsessed, filter-fixated world where online and reality blur, influencer Dorian Gray makes a deal. For his social star never to fade. For the perfect self he broadcasts to the world to always remain. But as his mental health starts to decline, as corruption and murderous depravity start to creep into his world, the true and horrific cost of his deal will soon need to be met.
The Picture of Dorian Gray reunites Tamara Harvey with playwright Henry Filloux-Bennett following their most recent critical success, What a Carve Up! which featured an all-star cast including Stephen Fry, Derek Jacobi and Wales’ Catrin Aaron.
Theatr Clwyd are co-producing the show with Cirencester’s Barn Theatre, Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre, Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre and Oxford Playhouse with partner venues including Wales’ Aberystwyth Arts Centre and Milford Haven’s Torch Theatre.
Tamara Harvey recently took time out to discuss the forthcoming production with Andy Howells.
What was behind the choice to stage Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray?
Like all good ideas it came out of a series of conversations between me, the writer and the other artistic directors of the other producing theatres.
First and foremost, with any adaptation it must be something the writer is passionate about and engages with as a text. Henry Filloux-Bennett said he had always loved the novel and I’ve always been deeply intrigued by it. Is particularly interesting in this moment and in the way that we made What A Carve Up! to be doing a piece looking at what art is and can be where does art end and the magic begin? What are the different ways we can engage with a piece of art or a piece of storytelling?
I guess the other thing that was important to us is that it was something we can really play around with and bring it bang up to date and wrestle with the story and the characters without upsetting the writer. We were fortunate with What A Carve Up! as the writer, Jonathan Coe, was incredibly open and collaborative and happy for us to be bold and try new ideas. I would hope Oscar Wilde would be happy with what we are doing but he does not have much of a comeback if he isn’t (laughs).
Is it essential to update such plays as this for modern day audiences?
I do not think it’s essential at all. I think audiences have extraordinary imaginations and all can hear a Story from another time, across for centuries. I know it is not a time that existed in history but look at the popularity of Game of Thrones no one fails to connect with that because there are Dragons.
I think it is one way of examining a classic in a different light there are lots of different ways but one of them is to put it under the microscope of a different time.
How well do you think it has adapted into the present-day situation?
I think it is great! (laughs) It is always really difficult when you’re doing interviews while in the process of making something. I do think Henry, who also adapted What A Carve Up! has the most extraordinary mind and is able to treat the original text with such respect and love while also spinning something in a new direction. I think he has done that with The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Without giving too much away, the questions The Picture of Dorian Gray raises are the quest for eternal youth, the desire for the world to be one way and whatever he might be hiding. The questions being asked are as depressingly relevant today as what they were when Wilde was writing it.
Wilde was a dramatist you can feel that in the way that he writes a novel. I think great pieces of literature and drama survive because they do seem to speak to a new age in a way that almost becomes more relevant with time. That is why Shakespeare’s words survive, that’s why Jane Austen is as popular now as she ever was because each new generation feels the writer is only speaking to them
Do you come from a theatrical family?
No not at all! (laughs) I fell in love with theatre at a young age. The first memory I have is being on the stage in a school nativity play. Joseph knocked on the wrong door and I dragged him back up on the stage to knock on the right one! So, even then, I imagine I was destined to become a director and not an actor.
I was lucky that there was this incredible teacher at my school. He was a Maths teacher, but he directed the school plays this was at state comp in Brighton. He was born in Bangor and now lives in Anglesey and still comes to Theatre Clwyd shows when we are open. David Crompton was probably my way in to seeing how transformative theatre could be. I remember standing in the wings for his production of West Side Story, I was too young to be in it, peeking through the brickwork I helped paint and watching Maria in West side Story. I was just transported.
When I was 17, there was an opera company at the Brighton Arts Festival that had an educational opportunity where students could shadow members of their creative team. I got on shadowing the directors which is one of the reasons why I think it’s so important to open the doors wide for young people in the theatre. After ten minutes in the rehearsal room, I just fell in love and realised this is what I want to do. I was lucky finding the thing I wanted to do early on and at the same time that’s really scary because you might fail
How do you get inspiration as a director? Do you have a light bulb moment and think this is how it needs to be done or is an evolving process?
It is both really. Occasionally there are lightbulb moments, but people inspire me most of all, whether it is the people whose stories we are telling, or the people we are collaborating with.
Contrary to popular belief, directing is a collaborative art form and I am only as good as the people standing beside me. If Henry weren’t such a great writer, I couldn’t make a good thing. I have an amazing director of photography in Ben Collins, an extraordinary composer and sound designer in Harry Smith, a brilliant designer in Holly Piggott… the list goes on!
The best shows, whether it’s online or in theatre come from a creative team and a company including the actors all bouncing ideas off each other and as a director you manage to create a space where anything feels possible.
The Picture of Dorian Gray will be a lot different to what you usually present on stage. How are you going about approaching this as an online presentation?
There are a lot more Zoom meetings than there would normally be. The conversations have to happen remotely a lot more and also, we’re trying to be respectful and understanding of people’s different circumstances right now. Whether that is because they cannot record something in the morning because of home schooling, or they are a bit more fragile because of whatever we’re living through. In the end it does still come down to a cracking good script and a bunch of talented actors and creatives.
Due to the pandemic, theatres across Wales have had to remain closed, so this is a good opportunity to see something new and fresh for those of us who are craving new theatre?
It is funny, I find myself talking about the things it’s not.
It is not television, radio, a film, or a theatre show. Its all, but none of the above. Its fresh and it is new. it’s been made now! I guess for anyone who loves theatre you know that by buying a ticket you know you are supporting theatres and hopefully when we make it through this, we will be able to welcome you into our buildings again.
How do you think theatre has adapted in the last year due to the COVID pandemic?
It is incredibly difficult for anyone involved in Theatre and most of all for freelancers, although I’m in a very lucky position still having a job but lots of my colleagues don’t. I think the hardest thing now is the uncertainty. it’s finding the strength, the courage and the patience to dust ourselves off and start planning again.
Strangely enough this is not true in Wales, there has never been a moment where we were allowed to open. To be allowed to open, then shut down again very rapidly, that is incredibly hard.
Optimistically, we will make it through and there will be a moment when we can bring people back into the theatres again, but I know a lot of brilliant creatives in this country who have been lost along the way. There just has not been for support for those people who have no safety net. Freelancers have no safety net, so I think it is a difficult time and this is the reason why we keep trying to find ways and making work. For example, with Dorian Gray there are funds to keep employing freelancers and to be able to keep offering what support we can.
You have got an exciting name cast as Dorian Gray?
Yes, Fionn Whitehead! He is just the loveliest human, quite apart from the fact that he is disgustingly talented! He is just a very lovely person. A rule for me is the older I get, the more interested I am in making sure that I work with lovely people. Life is too difficult and too short to work with anyone who is not.
Where are you now with the production?
We are casting the final couple of roles and in the middle of the preparation process in terms of design and locations. Having conversations with actors and we are recording video and audio over the next couple of weeks – then it is the mammoth task of editing, so we are right in the thick of it!