A balletic slant on Wildean favourite at The Churchill

PUBLISHED: 17:38 03 June 2009 | UPDATED: 11:27 12 August 2010

IN the arguably stuffy world of dance and ballet, choreographer Matthew Bourne has never been afraid of putting his own, frequently controversial, slant on the classics, writes Jason Goodyer. He first came to widespread attention for his 1995 production

IN the arguably stuffy world of dance and ballet, choreographer Matthew Bourne has never been afraid of putting his own, frequently controversial, slant on the classics, writes Jason Goodyer.

He first came to widespread attention for his 1995 production of Swan Lake in which the roles of the swans were danced by men.

Five years later he spliced elements of Rodion Shchedrin's Bolshoi Ballet version of Carmen with James M Cain's noir thriller The Postman Always Rings Twice to create The Car Men - a graphic tale of violence and eroticism set in a mechanic's garage.

And in 2005 he injected Tchaikovsky's fairytale ballet The Nutcraker with a potent dose of sex and off-kilter humour.

For his latest piece the choreographer has taken Oscar Wilde's chilling gothic fable The Picture of Dorian Gray and dragged it, kicking and screaming, up to date.

The original novel tells the story of a Victorian Dandy who enters into a Faustian pact with the devil to protect his otherworldly beauty from the scourge of aging.

He subsequently falls into a downward spiral of vice and the titular portrait grows more and more grotesque with each act of debauchery.

Bourne has updated Wilde's portrait of nineteenth century narcissism to modern day image obsessed celebrity culture recasting Dorian as a photographic model and the picture as an advertising billboard.

"It was a very contemporary story in some ways strangely," he explains, "It was written almost 100 years ago but the themes in it I thought were relevant to our concerns today like retaining youth which seems to be a modern obsession - looking young and hanging on to that we prize that above everything else. It seemed to be a story that you could update to now, which is what we have done. I got quite excited about taking that story bringing it up to date."

A key feature of the adaptation is its investigation into the corrupting power of fame.

"That's where the celebrity culture comes in when somebody becomes very famous for the way they look and they get treated differently, all their rules are different, they get access to everything, they don't pay for anything. It can create monsters as we see every day in the press.

"It's that I was really interested in, what that does to you, how it can change you inside even though you are still looking great on the outside. So the parallel is the idea of modern celebrity and what that does to you."

And in a thoroughly up-to-date publicity stunt, the theatre promoted Bourne's adaptation by having a half-naked man become part of a High Street window display in Bromley's last month.

The Adonis sat reading a copy of the Oscar Wilde book behind Debenhams window, safe from the adoring women who halted their retail therapy to catch a glimpse of him with some taking photographs on their mobile phones.

As in Swan Lake and The Car Man Bourne continues his fascination with the innate asymmetry of gender and reverses the gender of several of the novel's key characters.

Lord Henry from the novel becomes a high-powered magazine editor Lady Henrietta and Dorian's love interest Sybil becomes a foppish ballet dancer Cyril.

"I didn't really want it to become a male three-way ménage-a-trois type of thing. I thought that would get a bit repetitive. Also reading the book I thought it was quite misogynistic, the female characters are not very well drawn, they are slightly irrelevant. It wasn't a very good representation of women so to bring it up to date I felt we had to represent that so by having a very strong woman as the person who corrupts him I thought that would redress that balance. She is a very important person in the art world and someone who could get him on in his career so she becomes Lord Henry."

The change from Sybil to Cyril, however, has a deeper resonance.

"Sybil is not appreciated as a woman, only when she's acting does he love her. The reason I changed Sybil to Cyril was in the novel it doesn't really ring true when Dorian says I'm in love with this actress. Because everything you have read up to that point has led you to think there's some relationship between him and Basil and Lord Henry is flirting with him and it comes out of the blue and takes him by surprise a little bit so it rings truer to have it as a male character and probably that's what Wilde would've written if he could've done."

Matthew Bourne's Dorian Gray appears at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley, from today (Thursday) until June 6. Tel: 0871 297 5454.

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