Posted on September 12, 2008
Matthew Bourne’s dance works have undoubted popular appeal, and his latest production, a version of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is no exception. The show broke box office records when it was premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival and its season at Sadler’s Wells from September 2-14 was completely sold out. I saw Dorian Gray at Sadler’s Wells on September 12, and the theatre was packed with an audience very different from the usual crowd of contemporary dance enthusiasts – here were people, young and old, buzzingly eager to see Bourne’s latest creation and were just the sort of audience you are more likely to see at the National Theatre or at a West End musical. And, because of Dorian Gray’s subject matter, it was also noticeably gay. It is wonderful that Bourne can reach out and attract new audiences like this to dance, but I wish they could have had the opportunity to see something better than the tedious work on offer.
Bourne has certainly found a winning formula on which to build his productions: choose a subject with a well known title; give that subject a twist in emphasis in order to make an ironic and arch “contemporary” comment on the story; pack the production with film references (plus the odd ballet reference); commission fabulous sets and costumes from the brilliant designer Lez Brotherston; and most important of all, prefix the title with the words “Matthew Bourne’s”. It works every time. Matthew Bourne’s Dorian Gray follows all of these formulaic rules to the letter. Here, Dorian (Richard Winsor), a young and gorgeous waiter, becomes the lust object of fashion photographer Basil Hallward (Aaron Sillis). He propels Dorian into the shallow media world of fashion magazines and cat-walk models dominated by Lady H (Michela Meazza) and he becomes the face of an advertising campaign for a fragrance called “Immortal”. But as Dorian’s fame grows his life slips into excess (the dreaded sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll), triviality, and eventually murder and death.
There are parallels made with contemporary “celebrity” culture in this Dorian. One only has to think of the self-destructive course of life lived through the media that Amy Winehouse seems to have chosen for herself to see what Bourne is trying to suggest. But to be honest, it doesn’t make for an interesting evening and is it really anything to do with Oscar Wilde? I’m not so sure. In Wilde, Dorian’s beautiful portrait is hidden away from public view: in life he retains his physical splendour whilst his growing inner moral depravity is graphically depicted on a canvas no one but he can view. Bourne suggests his Dorian is a victim of decadence whilst Wilde’s anti-hero revels in it and the advantages his double life allows him – they are not the same thing.
As a portrait of a life destroyed by excess, Bourne’s production is graphic. His characters are brilliantly presented, but as a work of dance there is virtually nothing to appeal to someone wanting to see interesting choreography. Bourne’s limited dance vocabulary is the same here as it is in many of his other works. The most intriguing dance sequence takes place right at the beginning of the evening in a duet whereby Basil seduces Dorian whilst photographing him. Each man becomes increasingly aroused by the other – Basil by Dorian’s physical beauty, Dorian by the effect his physical beauty has on Basil. At one point in the duet Basil, stripped to his underpants, places the camera in front of his crotch for which Dorian reaches as cravenly as an actor in a porn movie. Here, just like the scene in the film Blow-Up where David Hemmings stands over a writhing Verushka whilst photographing her, the choreography explicitly suggests sexual lust and a desire for self-gratification. Later, Dorian leans his body backwards onto Basil’s torso, his arm reaching behind to caress his leg – an image of simultaneous supplication and manipulation that brilliantly expresses the men’s relationship. Sadly, you would be hard pressed to find dance of similar perception throughout the two hours of the production. As a study of narcissism, the production makes its points forcefully, but as a work of dance it quickly becomes a bore.
Richard Winsor as Dorian and Michela Meazza as Lady H in Matthew Bourne’s Dorian Gray. Photograph by Bill Cooper, courtesy of the Edinburgh International Festival.