From page to stage: director Katie O’Toole and assistant director Zac Tiplady on producing The Picture of Dorian Gray

By Tamsin Bracher and Aaron Bell 

Fourth Wall Theatre Company: ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray tells the Faustian tale of a beautiful young man who decides to sell his soul, allowing his portrait to age and wither, whilst he maintains his youth and beauty. It will be an alternative interpretation of Wilde’s greatest classic and will be set in the modern day in the secret life of the narcissistic London glitterati.’

The feature ‘Books vs films: an artistic rivalry’ (published last week in Indigo) attempted to explore the competing claims of verbal and visual representation. This week, Durham’s Fourth Wall Theatre Company will perform Oscar Wilde’s celebrated novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. Books speak with the director, Katie O’Toole, and assistant director, Zac Tiplady, about the relationship between their production and its original source, and the difficulties of translating art from page to stage.

Producing an 80,000 word book on stage is no mean feat – but it is one that Katie is determined to structure properly. FWT Company is using a Samuel French adaptation of the play, written by Merlin Holland (Wilde’s grandson) and John O’Connor. Both Katie and Zac agree that Merlin Holland’s version offers a freedom of creative expression, a ‘blank statement in terms of stage directions.’ They explain that professional re-workings are usually highly stylised, immediately raising issues for student theatre. However, this particular adaptation is ‘naturalistic,’ permitting them a great deal of flexibility. Zac describes the production as an ‘exercise in exploration,’ especially in terms of the visuals; it aims to question the boundaries between speech and silence, dramatic representation and literary endeavour. Lighting, costume, set, and sound will all be used to transcend the constraints of the written word, offering a creative re-imagining of Wilde’s only novel.

Lyn Gardner writes in The Guardian that ‘Wilde’s novel […] is ripe for theatrical reinvention. Its duality suits the theatre.’ Since the time of its first publication in 1891, The Picture of Dorian Gray has yielded various alternatives – from Michael Bourne’s contemporary dance routine to the National Youth Theatre’s innovative ‘Selfie.’ Zac argues that the ‘only way you can develop theatre is to change things about it, modernise it or do things differently.’ The FWT Company achieves this by casting Dorian Gray gender-blind: Sarah Cameron will play the lead. Both Katie and Zac see this as a natural progression from Dorian’s ‘androgynous’ literary representation. Their interpretation thus writes across the novel’s binary oppositions – appearance vs reality, male vs female, homosexuality vs heterosexuality. The ambiguities of the text are teased out in the eponymous hero(ine); divisions are shown to exist not only between but within individuals.  Androgyny, the union of sexes in one person, offers an exciting ‘creative range.’

Not only is Katie’s production the first to cast a female in a male representation of Dorian Gray (she explains that previous adaptations have switched the sex of the character himself), but the thirteen-strong cast will also work across roles as well as venues on-stage – a particular advantage of the theatre. John O’Connor, in an interview for Culture Trip, tells Tara Heuzé that he deliberately reduced the number of actors to enable ‘fluidity between roles,’ ‘redefining the theatrical and gender boundaries.’ The sense of plurality is, he points out, ‘very much in keeping with the Wildean dramatic tradition.’ FWT Company hopes to offer something ‘particularly interesting and relevant’ for today’s society, denying the possibility that human narrative can be reduced to a single authority. Their production is set in the modern day and Katie argues that The Picture of Dorian Gray – and its central concern for aestheticism – is ‘more relevant today than it was in the nineteenth century.’ Her performance will maximise the theme of ‘vanity’ and ‘self-consciousness’ and there will be a ‘room of mirrors’ on-stage to enable the audience to view Dorian from a number of different angles.

‘Image,’ Katie and Zac consider, ‘has been redefined by the different social consciousness’ of the 21st century; a world dominated by social media – Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. However, they are unwilling ‘to force anything in the production’, asking their audience instead for a ‘suspension of disbelief.’ Zac describes how ‘Wilde himself didn’t actively make up his mind a lot of the time, at points in the novel he is both praising and criticising.’ By hailing the constraints of each art form, the textual and the visual, and by demonstrating their mutual dependence, FWT Company captures this dual consciousness.

If Katie believes that The Picture of Dorian Gray probably ‘works better as a book,’ she is being modest – her production is set to be one of the most thought provoking and literary re-imaginings of a novel Durham student theatre has to offer.

The Picture of Dorian Gray will be performed in The Assembly Rooms Theatre from Wednesday 15th March until Friday 17th March at 7:30. Book your tickets here.

Photograph: Brett Jordan via Flickr and Creative Commons 

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