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Interview The Picture of Andrew McMillan

The poet talks to NEIL MUDD about his stage adaptation of Oscar Wilde's novel about the outer limits of male narcissism

ANDREW MCMILLAN'S poetry is of the robustly confessional kind. His award-winning collection Physical was less concerned with the body politic than the “community of the body” and, drawn to themes of violence and class, his writing has the unflinching eye of the late Thom Gunn, who he claims as a spiritual influence.

He's a bold choice to adapt Oscar Wilde’s florid cautionary tale The Picture of Dorian Gray for the stage. Dorian, his version for Huddersfield’s Proper Job Theatre Company, relocates the novel’s action to a modern-day gym and completes a loose trilogy which has featured new works by Ian McMillan (Nosferatu) and Helen Mort (Medusa).

“The idea of the gym and masculinity came very quickly,” McMillan explains on the phone. “That seemed a very logical place in which to set it —  to be able to talk how the body might be changing but not being able to see it.”

“There is something interesting about the self as seen by other people and the self as one really feels it to be. Partly it’s the way Wilde writes, [using] elongated sentences and thoughts. In this age of Instagram and Twitter we want to reach for something plainer but Wilde diverts us, resists that kind of direct path.”

McMillan is interested in people too readily stereotyped and dismissed: “The play is really just about paying close attention. There are humorous moments but they occur between characters, rather than poking fun at them.

“The history of poetry has been about the male gaze on women but if you turn that male gaze onto other men, you see a real fragility. The trick is always to write into that fragility or tenderness and see what happens.”

He's fascinated by how homoerotic Wilde's work is, but for heterosexual men. “In the world of bodybuilding and the gym, straight men aren’t entirely doing it to attract women,” he explains. “What they really want is validation from other men and it seems to me that can exist only within that sphere.”

His biggest challenge has been crafting something so long because “a poem is quite an easy thing to hold in your head while you’re writing it but with a play you have to think in terms of scenes and character development.

“When I first wrote a draft, I was writing in all the stage directions in minute detail but the actors told me that was their job. I only had to create the language for the characters, which was a bit of a relief to be honest.”

McMillan has clearly found the collaborative process inspiring. “We’ll see how people enjoy it,” he says, “but it’s the spectacle of it, the ability to do so much more, like live Photoshopping and the accumulation of images that happens onscreen during the play. I could never write that.”

On the subject of technology, a new phone app appeared recently which allows users to prematurely age pictures of themselves. It is hideously convincing — your very own Portrait of Dorian Gray in your pocket. Oscar Wilde is unlikely to have approved.

Dorian tours from October 15-November 1, box office:



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