When I asked the director what he thought of his play being labeled ‘immersive theatre’ he smiled. ‘I don’t see it as immersive theatre, that’s just the title the critics have put on it, it’s just a play in my house’. Director, producer, writer and actor Sam Orange sits back in his leather armchair, he sips from a can of lemonade and smokes from a rolled up cigarette. This show had been a success. As the remaining audience members litter the chairs and floor of one of the many rooms used in this performance, Sam tells us passionately about his process of The of Picture of Dorian Grey. It had always been his ambition to execute a play dedicated to his love for Oscar Wilde. So ten years ago he bought a house, borrowed a one hundred thousand pound deposit and turned it into a theatrical masterpiece.
You are given the address of house at the very last moment. Tentatively you walk up to the front door, a bit bewildered how you can explain to a stranger that you thought their living room was a stage. But the door opens. A man stands in a top hat and tells you ‘you must be the guests of Mr. Dorian Grey.’ The evening has begun. We are welcomed into the sitting room. A woman plays on a piano in the corner. Big billowing sheets cover the walls; benches are draped in soft silk, leather armchairs sit in each corner and we wait for something to happen. The man in the top hat, obviously playing a butler character takes our drink order and our coats. More slightly confused audience members join us and the room has reached its capacity of eight people. The room is pregnant with anticipation. It is soon that we expect the story to unfold.
We are told by the butler and the maid to not be too British about this whole experience. The evening will have a lot of unexpected twists and that if we cannot see what is happening, to move ourselves, sit next to the actors, stand face to face with them. We must follow the noises of the actors as they move from room to room. This is a play where the audience and the characters intertwine.
We are led into a bedroom. In the middle, there is large gothic bed covered in a silk black sheet concealing the outline of a body. Above the bed is a large mirror barley seen in the dim, flickering candlelight. Oscar Wilde’s prose comes from the Butler and Maid. At certain points the body in the bed begins to move until Dorian Grey steps out. He puts on a dressing gown and leaves the room. This is the introduction to our protagonist, mysterious, vague and alluring much like Dorian turns out to be.
This three-hour play is a triumph in art direction and technical design. The room that was once a sitting room has been transformed to a workingman’s club. The sheets on the walls have been pulled away revealing mirrors and a garish red wallpaper. Sitting in the chairs are Harry, a foppish upper class snob who is infatuated with Dorian. A caricature of Oscar Wilde himself, I am sure. On the other chair is the man who creates the picture of Dorian Grey; he too is infatuated with Dorian, using him as a muse for his best work. This three-way semi homoerotic triangle between them plays out throughout the course of the performance, sometimes with sniggers from the audience, made more uncomfortable when you are less than a foot away from them.
But instead of using a dusty old print of Dorian, they use a real life statue, a double of him, who emerges from behind the curtain in a great reveal. But all this admiration for Dorian goes to his head and he falls victim to a life of debauchery. He plans to marry a young actress, purely because she is such a remarkable performer and dumps her when she loses her talent. Dorian is a shallow man. He begins to fall in love with the statue of himself and at times, seems to be on the verge of sleeping with him.
The Picture of Dorian Grey is a well-known story. The interesting part of the evening is how each idea is executed and effect this has on an audience. For the scenes set in a theatre, the audience is invited to sit on wooden beams in an outside gazebo. The three men peer from the upstairs window of the house, as if from a private box. Teacups of warm mulled wine are passed between us as we sit in the cold October Greenwich garden. We follow the actors back into the workingman’s club, but now the carpet has been rolled away, a glass floor under our feet that we watch the next scene through. Orange’s performance is full of these well thought out intricacies.
One of the most memorable parts of the play is when we are led into the forbidden dungeon-style room of Dorian’s. The room is thick with green fog, so thick it is difficult to see. The ceiling is low and the actors crawl on the floor moaning. Through the fog you make our a dancer, rushing up to you with her hair back combed, she screams in you face and scratches her nails across the surface of the ceiling. It is here that Dorian murders his artist. A large white circle is drawn on the floor and you elbow a stranger in the face on numerous occasions. We are then led out of the room and offered a cut crystal glass of absinth.
The whole event, and it does feel much more like an event rather than a passive viewing experience, is a modern, extremely creative take on a classic play. The characters come alive to the point where you are practically sitting on their laps. It is the anticipation that drives this narrative. You are constantly wondering where you will be taken to next and which wall is a secret compartment to another room. This is the very point of theatre, to make you question, make you think and to make you feel something new about art. Oscar Wilde’s classic piece is reinvented in this fantastical exploration of human desire and vanity.