On July 3, 2016 the Ermolova Theatre in Moscow presented an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s philosophical and Gothic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), directed by the 33-year-old Alexander Sozonov. The play originally premiered in March 2013, and is described as a contemporary story of success and failure, money and risk, beauty and moral ugliness. In Sozonov’s version of the play, the story unfolds as the memoirs of a successful producer Lord Henry (played by Oleg Menshikov), whose main project is the mass-media and technology-driven myth of a new Übermensch: Dorian Gray (played by Sergey Kempo).
In a Faustian reinterpretation, Wilde’s Dorian Gray is the subject of a full-length portrait in oil by Basil Hallward, an artist who is impressed and infatuated by Dorian’s beauty; he believes that Dorian’s beauty is responsible for the new mode in his art as a painter. Through Basil, Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton, and he soon is enthralled by the aristocrat’s hedonistic worldview: that beauty and sensual fulfilment are the only things worth pursuing in life. Newly understanding that his beauty will fade, Dorian expresses the desire to sell his soul, to ensure that the picture, rather than he, will age and fade. The wish is granted, and Dorian pursues a libertine life of varied and amoral experiences, while staying young and beautiful; all the while his portrait ages and records every soul-corrupting sin.
In a conversation with the artist of the portrait, Basil Hallward (played by Yaroslav Ros), who believes that “beauty, intelligence, and talent found in one single person are an exceptionally rare gift,” Lord Henry replies that “beauty is above talent and intelligence because you don’t need to understand it rationally.” Wilde famously said that the novel’s three main characters are various reflections of himself, “Basil Hallward is what I think I am; Lord Henry is what the world thinks of me; Dorian is what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.”
One of the mandates of the Ermolova Theatre today is a “harmony of culture and information technology,” and Sozonov’s play is a prime demonstration of this synthesis. Multiple movable screens with live projections from different angles simultaneously broadcast the live-action on stage. A green screen is set up on one side that instantly transplants the actors filmed against it into various surrealistic digital settings. The camera is used not only to mimic the life of celebrity, glamour, branding, media, and information technology that the main protagonists are caught up in, but also to enlarge and isolate various (often simultaneous) action and emotions performed on stage.
Youth is a persistent theme that runs throughout the play. When we first encounter Dorian Gray, he appears in jeans, a grey hoody, and dark glasses, and starts freestyling into a mic. While posing for Basil’s portrait of him, he runs, bare-chested, on a treadmill, while digital sensors record his expressions. The final portrait is a digital light installation, stored and transmitted on a USB stick, and repeatedly projected onto one of the mobile screens on stage. In a play within the play, as the main protagonists watch Dorian’s love interest acting in the role of Juliet, Dorian describes the play to Lord Henry with an ironic wink to Sozonov’s directorial self-irony: “You wouldn’t have liked the play. It’s all modern, with cameras, a green wall, and they say the director is a hipster!” But despite all other types of innovation, feminism is nowhere in sight. All female characters are objectified sexually and presented as secondary characters, whose main function is to propel the story and identity-crises of the male characters.
This is the second play with Oleg Menshikov (after his “Dream Orchestra“) in the theatre’s repertoire, in which he gets to contemplate ageing, and perhaps his own mortality, with a slight hint of nostalgia. His Lord Henry is presented both as a dandy (with a hipster haircut, silk scarfs, and a cane) and an old man in a wheelchair and a mechanized voice, who lives to tell Dorian’s story, and at the climax of the play begs Dorian to tell him the secret of his youth for which Lond Henry would give and do anything. Perhaps Menshikov found a way to confront his own fading youth (which for a highly talented and creative artist must be particularly difficult) by surrounding himself with multi-talented and highly innovative young artists who allow him (as the artistic director) to push the limits of theatrical craft and innovation, and to combine classical culture with new pop- and media cultures. The result is a visually stunning spectacle and and a new generation of performers who get to learn from the best and innovate theatre culture along the way.
Photos by Olga Anosova and Zhenya Sirina