Nikki Walsh, The Irish Independent, Weekend Review (Saturday 10th April 2010)
Cucumber sandwiches, warm buttered scones and steaming pots of tea are just some of the treats you can expect to be served at Wonderland Production’s latest show, a reading of The Picture of Dorian Gray. One of the many performances that will be held in Dublin as part of the ‘One City, One Book’ project, the show is more an imaginative re-enactment of the book than a reading, something Wonderland’s founder and artistic director Alice Coghlan likes to call “a play with a narrative”.“We are asking the audience to imagine everything with us” says Alice.
Taking the book to the stage, or rather the James Joyce Tea Rooms of Bewley’s, has been the biggest challenge of the production. “Wilde wrote the book as a young man and it is overwritten; there are a lot of repetitions. We are cleaning that up, getting to the point. The actors only speak Wilde’s words and it feels as if they are passing the narrative back and forth. It’s good for the book.”
Of course it doesn’t get more Wildean than afternoon tea, and its ceremony – not to mention the sense of theatre- has been incorporated in to the show, with the actors helping themselves to the odd cuppa as they tell each other, and the audience, the story.
Alice has taken her menu very seriously with promises of towering cake stands, mini croissants and calorific buns. “It captures the hedonistic spirit of the book perfectly,” she says. “It allows us to do what Wilde did – play with his audience. They think they are indulging in the niceties, the formalities of afternoon tea, and then we hit them with a story that, despite its obsession with surfaces and masks, has a dark underbelly.”
Presenting a double bill of food and theatre is something the Wonderland are good at. In 2008, their lunchtime opera at Bewley’s Café Theatre was a big hit with Dublin audiences while, more recently, their translation of the obscure restoration comedy La Locandiera, was served up alongside a four-course tapas menu, re-introducing Irish audience to the concept of dinner theatre.
It’s a refreshing approach that Alice likes to describe as “interactive theatre” and which has, over the last seven years, resulted in a wide range of shows, from cheeky musicals to French comedies in site specific locations. ”Our first show was a comedy ghost show in a pub” says Alice. “Actors were crawling through audiences chairs.”
Its not for the fainthearted. Ask Alice about the company’s near disasters and she is happy to list, with the amusment of a seasoned pro – missing cutlery, flaming plates of food and boisterous audiences are all hazards of the job. But engaging with audiences makes for great banter and some memorable one-liners. “In La Locandiera one of our actors asks the audience for advice as to whether he should marry. Someone shouted, ‘Only with a pre-nup!”
At a time when most theatre companies are reeling from budget cuts, Wonderland looks set to capitalise on years of hard graft and creativity. “We never got any funding,” says Alice, “so we are used to fending for ourselves. Passion has been the only think we have had to incentivise our projects and that has been no bad thing,. Money has and will always be a problem, but by being independent we have also had the freedom to do what we want.”
This freedom, and passion, has resulted in a number of successes, including Life: Shop Till You Drop, a one-woman, one act play that Alice first wrote and directed in 2007, now on its fifth international tour. Next came a production of Brendan Behan’s The Hostage, staged in the birthplace of Padraig Pearse, which opened to rave reviews last year. La Locandiera meanwhile goes to the Edinburgh Fringe this year.
Now firmly installed as artists in residence at the Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray, where they have received a lot of support from local audiences, Coghlan’s vision for the future is clear. “We’ve always tended to be ambitious and now its time to raise the bar. This year seems to have been about the classics but next year I would like us to return to opera and also to experiment with new writing.
Until then its back to rehearsals. With actors Michael James Ford, Simon Coury and Michael Winder all veterans of the Gate and no strangers to Wilde’s work, heading the line-up, it will be interesting to see what Dubliners make of the place Wonderland will create beyond the private imaginations of the reader and within the public space of the theatre, served with tea and lashings of Wildean wit.
The Picture of Dorian Gray takes place in the James Joyce Tearoom at Bewley’s of Grafton St from April 13 to May 1 at 4.30pm. Booking can be made on 0818 205 205 or online at www.ctb.ie
Louise Finn, The Dubliner (Sep 2010) ✮✮✮✮
The tale of The Picture of Dorian Gray has aged well. Wilde’s exploration of the allure of youth is as fresh faced and relevant today as it was when first published in 1890. We exist in an era obsessed with remaining forever young. Had he made his pact today, Dorian would probably be working in Hollywood.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, Dorian Gray sits for a portrait by the artist Basil Hallward who thinks the picture might be the his finest piece of work yet. Just before he finishes, his friend Lord henry Wotton calls and is transfixed by Dorian’s beauty and youth. He advises Dorian that the best way to live is in a haze of hedonism and aestheticism. The portrait is triumphantly unveiled and on seeing it, with Lord Henry’s words in his mind, Gray makes a plea that he should not age but rather the picture will.
Complex themes aside, Wilde’s novel relies heavily on the imagination of the reader to conjure up the beauty and monstrosity of its titular character making it a tall order to adapt, especially into one act. But Alice Coghan has done a sterling job in both adaptation and direction, extracting the most relevant exchanged and cleverly allowing the actors to deliver passages of prose that move the story along.
The staging, just after dinner in Bewleys beautiful James Joyce balcony, lends a touch of the Victorian drawing room to proceedings and helps in the creation of a rather decent atmosphere. This is aided by the fact that we’re polishing off our lemon tart and vino when the actors begin playing: indulging in naughty pleasures while being warned about their folly. The biggest problem for any adaptation of Dorian is finding someone who matches our idea of what he should look like. His transfixing beauty and charm are vital and initially Michael Winder is not the traditional matinee idol hottie that recent film adaptations have cast. But there’s something striking about him and the actors’ change from the innocent boy to the corrupt villain happens so subtly that we identify with Basil’s shock in realising this young man has become a monster. A very nuanced performance.
Winder is supported by Michael James Ford and Simon Coury who both gave flawlessly executed, commanding performances. It’s no mean feat to keep a play going when you’re eyeballing someone chewing on desert or trying to speak over the street cleaning machines passing by outside. Mind you, you probably shouldn’t listen to anything this review says, as Lord Henry remarks “Beauty, real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins.” So go see it and judge for yourself.
Dave Madden, DublinCulture.ie ( 7th Apr 2011)
Last year’s choice for One City, One Book was Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, and as part of the festival Wonderland Theatre put on a play of the book in Bewley’s Cafe on Grafton Street. The show received rave reviews (“must see theatre”, “an exquisite adaptation”) so perhaps unsurprisingly Wonderland have brought it back for another run in the same beautiful setting of Bewley’s. This time it’s a dinner show. This is a very distinctive play. There’s no stage – the actors use the same space the patrons are dining in. Even the most snug, intimate of theatres can’t match the immediacy of this. With the spectators so close to the actors the quality of the acting has to be high, and it is. The room itself is beautiful, and very well suited to the play; props used in the play blend easily into the decor. The story is a well-known one; the story of a young man, Dorian Gray, given the chance to keep his youth and beauty beyond natural limits. It’s surprisingly intense, though that might be due to the setting. As an adaptation it’s superb – it really has the flavour and wit of Wilde’s own plays. Dinner is served by Bewley’s prior to the start of the show. (It’s similar to their lunch menu in portion size.) I’d suggest the tagliatelle, as it’s something of a signature dish. The dessert was also good and the coffee was excellent. The only small concern I’d express is that at one hour and thirty minutes without an interval, the play is quite demanding. Don’t let that put you off – just be aware that if you’re tired after a long day’s work, the intimacy of the setting might make this play less relaxing than most. If however you’re a tourist – wow! Wilde plus Bewley’s is a great combination. I’d also recommend the play very highly if you’re a frequent theatre-goer looking for something unusual and different. Conclusion: enjoyable, well-acted and novel. If you missed it last year, give it a g
Peter Crawley, The Irish Times (Sep 2010)
“All art is quite useless,” wrote Oscar Wilde, approvingly, in the preface to his only novel. The phenomenon of dinner theatre might support the claim, where art is something to be consumed along with a main course and desert; diverting, nourishing and easily digested.
Adapter and director Alice Coghlan is faithful to Wilde’s Gothic melodrama. The spine of the narrative is retained, its slimmed-down prose divided neatly between three protagonists: the initially beatific Dorian (Michael Winder), his besotted portraitist Basil Hallward (Michael James Ford), and his serpentine corruptor Lord Henry (Simon Coury- all of whom share the narrator’s voice. One happy consequence is that Wilde’s familiar epigrams are treated fondly but without reverence.
The freshest aspect of Coghlan’s reading is in its clear-sighted simplicity. There is no set to speak of, apart from an empty gilt-edged picture frame, and designer Tara Jones-Hamilton wisely decides that a story bound between social clubs, drawing rooms and a dusty attic will feel right at home on the third floor of Bewleys. The space slightly hampers our access to the performances, though, where Michael James Ford’s saturnine longing makes a more satisfyingly intriguing character than the head-tossing figure of the novel, while Simon Coury is the embodiment of subversive languor.
The near-erotic fascination the men have for the boys youth is laid on thick, with heavy echoes of Wilde’s own sexual double life: it is “a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter”, as Basil might say. That may explain the marginal role of women, but it leads the production into one distracting tonal mis-step when Ford makes a parodic appearance as Lady Henry. Elsewhere, the abandoned actress, Sybil Vain, is more pointedly and poignantly represented by an empty chair and the gesture is both intelligent and sinister: crystallising the novel’s dualities between reality and appearance, truth and construct, life and art. If Winder’s Dorian leaves a fainter impression, it’s because Wilde’s beautiful, impressionable anti-hero is, at root, a compelling cipher. That empty picture frame says it all. As we project our imagined portrait of degradation and disfigurement between its edges, Wonderland rekindles Wilde’s fascinating idea. Ultimately, Dorian is not a picture of evil, but a blank canvas for our own guilt, sins and desires.
Declan Burke, The Sunday Times (Sunday 2nd May 2010)
Performed in the round at the James Joyce Tea Room at Bewley’s Cafe, this production creates an intimacy designed to amplify the nuances on Oscar Wilde’s gothic take on the libertarian credo. Dorian Gray (Michael Winder) evolves from a callow narcissist to soulless killer, his journey is observed by his artist friend, Basil (Michael James Ford), and his predatory Svengali, Lord Henry (Simon Coury), with Ford and Coury also playing a number of smaller parts. An exquisite adaptation by Alice Coghlan, who also directs, sees all three characters narrating events, which has the effect of drawing the audience in, as the actors move through the tables, and implicate the audience in Dorian’s immorality. A deceptively sedate pace belies a wealth of compelling narrative while a judicious use of Wildean epigrams distracts from the suddenness with which Dorian is transformed into a monster. All three performances are strong, although the initially cherubic Winder is superb in revealing the full ramifications of the “horrible sympathy” he enjoys with his alter ego.
Sara Keating Irish Theatre Magazine (26thth April 2010)
The problem with The Picture of Dorian Gray is that it is seriously over-written, even by Oscar Wilde’s standards. However, the style of the book is a self-conscious gesture of verbosity. When the book was first published in 1890, it attracted notoriety for being “unclean,” “effeminate,” and “contaminating.” Republished in 1891, Wilde was at pains to disguise the homoerotic undertones of the story in as much social decorum as he could pile on, resulting in several extra unnecessary chapters. This is the form of the book that exists in print today, and while The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of the best gothic stories ever imagined, it almost drowns in its own excessive style. Basically, it needs a good edit – and this is precisely what Alice Coghlan does in her excellent adaptation of the book for the stage.
Wonderland Productions theatrical interpretation The Picture of Dorian Gray takes place in a cafe rather than a theatre. This is the second time that the company is using the backdrop of a working food venue as staging device; their 2009 production of La Locanderia, which unfolds over a four course meal, was so successful that it is still touring nationwide. Twinning theatre with a secondary social event (in this case afternoon tea) is certainly a good marketing ploy, breaking the formality associated with the theatre, and while in The Picture of Dorian Gray Wonderland do not quite manage to make afternoon tea critical to the staging, the dainty tiered platters of cucumber sandwiches and the mahogany-hued ambience of the James Joyce Tea Rooms certainly evoke an era of civilised Victorian grandeur.
Staged at 4.30 in the afternoon, the production unfolds against the naturally lit backdrop of open windows, where the muted noises of a Grafton Street shopping day might be the “dim roar of London” that our narrator, Basil Hallward alludes to as he sets the scene for the unfolding tale of supernatural horror. Coghlan’s adaptation moves seamlessly between narration and dialogic interchange, the narrated events adding pace at key junctures, as the story moves towards its inevitable uncanny end.
Michael James Ford, an expert in performing Wilde’s prose works (he has adapted and performed many of his stories for the stage), brings a perfect plummy depth to his narration and a pompous passion to Basil’s relationship with the radiant Dorian. Lord Henry is a less salubrious character, and with his striking pale face and bold dark eyebrows, the caped Simon Coury commands our attention in much the way that he hypnotises the decadent Dorian’s, with his self-righteous philosophising and certainty about life. Meanwhile, Michael Winder – his cherubic face further softened by curls – gives us a spoilt weak Dorian, a vessel into which men and women pour their fantasies; a man without his own character; a man indeed without a soul.
Wonderland Productions’ facilitate a fascinating, civilised afternoon at the theatre, and a more than satisfying version of this difficult novel, which would become the defining book of Wilde’s career. For if, as Basil asserts in one of many pithy epithets about art, every painting is “a portrait of the artist not the sitter,” The Picture of Dorian Gray, is perhaps as close as we get to a confessional throughout his rich creative oeuvre. Just four years after the revised edition of the book was published, he was arrested for “gross indecency” and sentenced to prison, where he would later die. Perhaps that is the true horror that haunts The Picture of Dorian Gray: Wilde’s realisation of his own impending doom.
Shaun Dunne, Le Cool (Thursday 22th April 2010)
A three-tiered sandwich tray, a pot of tea and a dip into the dainty, yet dark world of Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray is the immersive- and extremely well constructed latest offering from the veritable Wonderland Productions.
The play was notoriously used against Wilde when he was put to trial on charges of sodomy in 1895. Dorian Gray is a beautiful young man who goes about the business of breaking hearts and ruining lives following the projection of his soul onto a portrait of him done by a male admirer. Themes of art, love, sex and vanity are explored throughout Alice Coghlan’s adaptation of this classic text in which the narrative’s anti-hero stays forever young while growing steadily depraved.
The actors play wonderfully with the script and keep their audience’s attention throughout. Catch this classic while you still can.
Lucy White, Metro Herald (Thursday 22th April 2010) ✮✮✮✮
The muse of earnest painter Basil Hallward (Michael James Ford, pictured on the left) and plaything of nefarious Lord Henry (Simon Coury, right), beautiful Dorian (Michael Winder, centre) makes a Faustian pact never to grow old while instead his portrait ages. It’s not long, however, before the trade-off becomes clear – in selling his soul for youth, his likeness grows older and uglier with every sin he commits.
It’s a well-known Gothic horror, and this year’s Dublin: One City, One Book selection, but few actors have played out the opium highs and wretched lows in a cafe during real-time afternoon tea.
Adapted and directed by Alice Coghlan for Wonderland Productions, the three actors move convincingly around the tea rooms, no mean feat, given the unnervingly close proximity to their audience, and also a lack of eerie lighting design. But whether picking out a carnation from a table display or wafting incense under our noses to evoke an opium den, they do so with relish. Elfin Winder is perfectly cast as lord snooty Dorian, while Coury’s jaded rake Lord Henry is the perfect foil to Ford’s tragic Basil.
Also, Alun Smith deserves a Victoria sponge for his subtle sound design, ranging from gentle birdsong during garden scenes to clattering street noise.
Culch.ie (Saturday 17th April 2010)
The tea-room was filled with the rich odour of brewing coffee, and when the light spring sun cast it’s gentle rays across the spanning windows the dim roar of Grafton Street was no more than the bourdon note of a distant organ. No, you haven’t fallen into a decadent drawing room circa 1890 but an afternoon of delicious temptation with a production of Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.
Wonderland Productions, in association with Dublin One City One Book present afternoon tea with a Wilde twist in the James Joyce Tea Rooms in Bewleys, Grafton Street. Acted and narrated by Lord Henry (Simon Coury), Basil (Michael James Ford) and Dorian (Michael Winder) the play is intimate and thoroughly charming. Shared narration of the text intermingled with the dialogue means that the play loses little of Wilde’s delicious flair for description.
For those who have been living under an illiterate rock all of their lives The Picure of Dorian Gray is the scandalous fiction of a young man, Dorian, who around the turn of the 20th century, arrives in London having inherited his estranged grandfather’s house. His new friend Basil, inspired by Dorian’s beauty paints his portrait, arguably Basil’s best work. On seeing the portrait and under the influence of Lord Henry, Dorian wishes that he could stay young and beautiful forever. (A deal that in this production, either by coincidence or wonderful foresight was ominously struck in symphony with nearby Grafton Street bells.)
If I could get back my youth, I’d do anything in the world except get up early, take exercise or be respectable.
Somehow this wish is granted and the sins of Dorian’s hedonistic life of indulgence, alcohol, drugs and sexual deviancy are borne out on the portrait as the true reflection of his soul while his handsome face remains unmarred by the turn of time.
Witty, sexy and dark, The Picture of Dorian Gray is my all time favourite book as can be evidenced by a snap shot of my book shelf, (yes, I have it in different languages but we all have our indulgences) and this afternoon delight was just wonderful.
Helen Boylan, Sunday Business Post
Wonderland Productions adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s classic gothic horror fiction doesn’t take itself too seriously. This daytime theatre, set in and around the tables of a buzzing city centre cafe, offers an accessible version of Wilde’s tale to audiences who can enjoy afternoon tea as the drama unfolds.
As we sip tea and nibble from tiered cake stands of pastries, scones and cucumber and ham sandwiches, artist Basil (Michael James Ford) explains to his visiting friend Lord Henry (Simon Coury) about a portrait he has painted of a beautiful youth, Dorian Gray (Michael Winder), with whom the artist is infatuated.
This fine work of art is denoted here by an empty picture frame, requiring the audience to fire up their imagination to see what a fine painting it might be. Basil and Henry agree it is a wonderful portrait – “he looks like he’s made of ivory and rose leaves” – and when Dorian sees the finished work, he is in awe of himself.
But his admiration sours with the realisation that his youthful beauty is ephemeral. “How sad it is,” Dorian despairs. “I shall grow old and horrible and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young.”
In order to stay forever young as the picture grows old, he trades his soul. And so begins a story which explores aestheticism, morality and duplicity.
Under Alice Coghlan’s direction, the cast fare ably under such intimate scrutiny from the audience.
As the actors have nowhere to hide, neither does the audience, all of whom sit facing different directions in bright daylight. A minor quibble would be that the show’s running time (100 minutes with no interval) could have been tighter.
But with some amusing performances and Wilde’s many quotable quotes (“Murder is always a mistake. One should never do anything that one cannot talk about after dinner”), this show breathes new life into afternoon tea.