Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Tom Littler: Pictures Of Dorian Gray

By | Published on Friday 31 May 2019

Headed to Jermyn Street Theatre is a new adaptation of ‘The Picure Of Dorian Grey’, and it sounds innovative and amazing. It’s the work of playwright Lucy Shaw, and it’s been directed by Jermyn Street artistic director Tom Littler.

It arrives in the capital after a two week run in Yorkshire, having already generated some acclaim. I was really keen to find out more about the show and what to expect from it, so I put some questions to Tom ahead of its London run.

CM: Many will know the story of Dorian Gray, but maybe not everyone: can you give us an insight into the narrative of the show?
TL: Yes – and far more people know a bit of the story than have ever read Oscar Wilde’s novel, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’. It’s so famous that you almost feel as if you’ve read it. It’s a short and very beautiful novel written in 1891, about an innocent young man called Dorian Gray, who meets an older, amoral aristocrat, Lord Henry Wotton. Wotton fills Dorian’s head with all kinds of decadent ideas, and tempts him into a life of sin. Meanwhile, Wotton’s friend Basil Hallward paints a beautiful portrait of Dorian, and Dorian makes a wish: if only he could stay young, while the portrait grows old…

CM: What themes does the show explore?
TL: Guilt, corruption, pleasure, desire, shame, sexuality, beauty, ageing, youth… It’s a rich tapestry! Art – how we make it, how selfish it is, how artists treat the people they love. Most of all, I think Lucy Shaw’s adaptation is about how we attempt to split ourselves, try to divide our characters into good and bad.

CM: I’ve seen this adaptation described as “groundbreaking” – in what way is it groundbreaking?
TL: Our hard-working and brilliant cast switch roles during the run! You can choose which version of the story – which Picture – you want to see. We wanted to take this late-Victorian story about the lives of men, to include more female perspectives. For example, if you watch Picture A, you’ll see a male Dorian, corrupted by a male Wotton. In Picture B, you’ll see a male Dorian corrupted by a female Lady Wotton. In Picture C, it’s Dorian as a young woman, corrupted by an older man, and in Picture D a young woman is tempted into sin by an older woman. The four versions are all the same language and the same production, but it’s amazing to watch the subtle differences that emerge when the actors switch roles.

CM: How faithful is it to the novel? Does it use any language from the book, or does it just use the story?
TL: We’ve just had an early review that describes this as “the play Oscar Wilde never wrote”, which is an amazing compliment to get. Almost all the language comes from the original novel, and lots of Wilde’s dazzlingly witty dialogue is there. And although of course it edits the story to pack it into a 90-minute play, all the big episodes of the novel are present. But the marvel of the adaptation is the way that it uses that language and spins it around, and seems to move effortlessly from one episode to the next.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about Lucy Shaw, who created the adaptation?
TL: Lucy trained as an actor and then moved into writing. She was mentored by the late, great Stephen Jeffreys at the Royal Court. She writes poetry and plays often inspired by myth. There are echoes of Beckett, of Kane, of Churchill, in her work, but hers is a unique voice.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the cast?
TL: We have four actors, and I’m in awe of them. Augustina Seymour and Richard Keightley alternate the roles of Lord/Lady Wotton, and the young actor Sibyl Vane. They’re both hugely experienced actors who’ve appeared at the Globe, Almeida, Chichester, National, and every regional theatre you can think of. Then we have two relative newcomers alternating the roles of Dorian Gray and the artist Basil: Helen Reuben, who just played Sally Bowles for me straight out of drama school, and Stanton Wright, who’s just done his first job at the National. They are all incredibly talented and inventive – it’s a true ensemble.

CM: What made you want stage this production?
TL: I’d done an adaptation of Dorian Gray before and really enjoyed it, but I had a sense of unfinished business. Partly because I wanted to explore it from other gender perspectives, and partly because I felt there was a mythic, dark heart to the story I hadn’t seen in other adaptations. We’d been working with Lucy to develop some of her original plays at Jermyn Street Theatre, and she was the obvious choice to adapt this novel.

CM: What’s next for this show after the run at Jermyn Street?
TL: It started life at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough for a couple of weeks. Then after Jermyn Street it goes to Oxford – a place very much associated with Wilde! It will be playing there (co-produced with Creation Theatre) in Blackwell’s Bookshop in the enormous Norrington Room, which is being specially converted into a theatre space for three weeks this summer.

CM: What plans do you have coming up for Jermyn Street?
TL: In September, our 25th anniversary season, the Memories Season, kicks off. I’ll be directing Somerset Maugham’s ‘For Services Rendered’, which is like an English ‘Three Sisters’ from the 1930s, and Shakespeare’s ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’. Vik Sivalingam is directing the world premiere of Gail Louw’s ‘The Ice Cream Boys’, about Jacob Zuma, and Laura Keefe is directing the very funny and touching ‘One Million Tiny Plays About Britain’, which was first seen at the Watermill.

CM: What’s next for you, after Dorian Gray?
TL: I’m off to the Lake District to direct Alan Ayckbourn’s version of ‘Uncle Vanya’, titled ‘Dear Uncle’, for Theatre by the Lake, before coming back to do For Services Rendered.

‘Pictures Of Dorian Gray’ is on at Jermyn Street Theatre from 5 Jun-6 Jul. See the venue website here for info and to book tickets.

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Photo: SR Taylor Photography