Since making his name with his version of The Nutcracker in 1992, director/choreographer Matthew Bourne has gone on to establish himself as the leading proponent of dance theatre in this country. With the critically and commercially acclaimed shows he has devised, including Swan Lake, Car Man and Edward Scissorhands, he has proved himself to be a master storyteller who can bring real drama to the stage without words.
Bourne’s latest show, based on Oscar Wilde’s notorious 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, is his most darkly compelling and psychologically disturbing so far. The basic plot and themes are taken from Wilde, but Bourne has changed a lot in his modernization of the cautionary tale of a man who somehow preserves his youthful beauty on the outside while inside his soul becomes corrupted by his relentless pursuit of self-gratification.
In Bourne’s adaptation, Dorian becomes a celebrity model lusted after by both sexes, whose drug- and drink-fuelled promiscuous lifestyle leads to murder. As with previous shows (notably the male swans in Swan Lake), Bourne has gender-swapped, so that Dorian’s initial corrupting influence Lord Henry Wotton is now the fashionista Lady H, while the actress Sybil Vane, whom Dorian falls in love with, metamorphoses into the ballet dancer Cyril Vane. Dorian’s portrait painter Basil Hallward becomes a fashion photographer, and the famous portrait in the attic which gradually changes to reveal Dorian’s moral decadence is replaced by a doppelgnger who shadows him around.
As always with Bourne, the visual impact of the show is very striking. The set and costume designs of long-time collaborator Lez Brotherston are almost totally in stylish black and white (presumably representing the moral dichotomy in the protagonist’s character), so that we are shocked near the end to see smeared red bloodstains on the walls of Dorian’s flat, now adorned with a photo of his own screaming face and Baconesque butcher-shop male nudes.
A revolve is used effectively to move from inside to outside scenes (again suggesting Dorian’s split personality) and to give a sense of the reckless pace of living in the fast lane where the pleasure principle drives on the young, the beautiful and the damned to dizzy extremes. Terry Davies’s pumped-up electronic score also captures the mood of 24-hour party people, though there are more chilling musical passages to echo Dorian’s descent.
The show is certainly exciting to watch though ultimately it does not quite penetrate the moral murkiness of Dorian’s (self-)destructive world. Bourne’s direction is slick and his choreography full of exuberance but one feels sometimes he is celebrating this superficial fashion and media culture with its skin-deep obsession with physical beauty and hedonistic indulgence, rather than exposing it. The idea of the doppelgnger has terrific potential but its use here is rather confused and confusing: if it represents Dorian’s darker self why is it only Dorian himself whom we see behaving badly? We do get a strong sense of the emptiness of his life but in this ugly story about beauty we are not persuaded that Dorian’s narcissism extends to the evil of serial-killing.
However, there are many thrilling moments in the show. Bourne makes explicit the homoerotic elements in the original story, in particular Dorian’s couplings with Basil and Cyril. There is an electric moment near the start when Dorian is ‘discovered’: after a party at which Dorian has been serving drinks, Basil turns his camera on him, with Dorian freezing before blooming in the spotlight and then taking the initiative from Basil as he leads him to the bedroom. Afterwards we see Dorian caressing himself with the camera, a scene violently counterpointed near the end when he uses it to batter Basil to death: a neat encapsulation of the dramatic rise and fall of Dorian Gray.
The dancing is first class. Richard Winsor undoubtedly conveys the allure of Dorian in a highly sensual performance suggesting a man revelling in the public gaze and the sexual power it gives him, without providing us with convincing motivation that drives this anti-hero to such dire consequences. Aaron Sillis excels as the predatory Basil turned victim, Michela Meazza gives Lady H a supercilious sexiness and Christopher Marney expresses beautifully Cyril’s feline grace.
Although the show loses its way a little in the second half, it ends powerfully with Dorian killing his doppelgnger (Jared Hageman) in bed, and thus committing suicide, with the PR-manipulated paparazzi swarming all over him to get the final perfect picture. A bitterly ironic fate for the face of the men’s perfume ‘Immortal, pour homme’.