Everyone thinks they know the story of Dorian Gray

Oonagh Murphy, Abbey Theatre Resident Assistant Director, describes the first day of rehearsals.

Neil Bartlett stands before the assembled staff on the first read-through of his new adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

First read-through mornings at the Abbey are notoriously nerve-inducing events, an atmosphere which Neil dispels immediately, telling the crowd that he met Wilde this morning while walking across the green of Trinity College. An avid Wildean scholar, director and long-time adapter, Bartlett has encountered Wilde many times before, and I certainly take this Monday morning’s encounter as further confirmation, if the script itself is not already sufficient evidence, that this production is a meeting of great minds. The Abbey staff sits back as the company, with several debuts and many well-known faces, read the script dynamically, a radio-play that promises much of its fully staged production.

As Neil suggests, everyone thinks they know the story of Dorian Gray. It has left a residue on contemporary culture – the well-known phrase ‘She’s got a picture in the attic’ just one example. He goes on to explain how this production will be about meeting those expectations and starting a conversation with them. ‘Why do people book tickets to Wilde?’ Sofas, potted plants, stylish lives and pithy quips… Certainly, this production will satisfy that appetite for style, as designer Kandis Cooke and Neil have devised costumes changes with plenty of frocks and ‘enough feathers to depopulate an aviary’.

The company are shown the stage design, bearing the hallmarks of the director’s ability to combine confident economy with arresting theatricality; ‘it’s about assembling what’s needed to tell the story’ and ‘relying on a simple visual language for character changes’. This is a tragedy in the classical sense. We encounter a hero with a particular problem, and around him are characters who engage with him but who also are invested in the story and seem to know how it ends. What appears to interest Neil specifically, is the audience’s relationship to Dorian, via this ensemble, do we want him to get away with it?

The rest of the day is saturated with snatches of insight into how far along in its inception this production is in Neil’s mind. Sometimes as an assistant director, there is an overwhelming feeling that you are in a master-class, and that some of these ideas are ones you will return to repeatedly in your own work. We discuss the dynamics of the piece – the ability of using the chorus to pause, fast forward and magnify behaviour. The thriller quality of the work is highlighted – what is the accumulatory effect of death in this saga with a thrillingly high body count? Neil outlines how we will rehearse this massive production, specifically highlighting the work that will be done with Voice Director Andrea Ainsworth, in developing a speaking ensemble that drives the story to its end.
I scribble notes and hope I will be able to read them later.

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