THEATRE / Rejuvenating Dorian: Or is it opera? Or a musical? David Benedict talks to Nicolas Bloomfield about The Picture of Dorian Gray; plus Shakespeare in Manchester and Shaw in London

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The Independent Culture
Wilde's texts don't lend themselves to singing.' The composer Nicolas Bloomfield may be right. Previous attempts haven't lodged themselves in the public's consciousness. Anyone seen The Importance, Earnestly Yours or Born in a Handbag or, better still, Castelnuovo-Tedesco's 1962 opera L'importanze d'essere franco? The exception is Strauss's Salome, but that is a German translation of an intensely poetic French original. The elegant epigrammatic prose of Dorian Gray, by turns hyperbolic, lush and terse, would seem to be resistant to musical adaptation. So what are Gloria Theatre Company up to?

'I'd like to break down the distinctions between musicals, opera and music-theatre. We've never made the distinctions.' Their last show, Night after Night, was a musical about musicals, yet it didn't have the conventional structure of the Broadway model. The nearest thus far was A Judgement in Stone, a daring adaptation of the Ruth Rendell thriller. 'It had music throughout and most of the action was carried through the singing. Dorian Gray is almost entirely spoken.'

Scored for onstage string sextet and harp, the role of music - as with all Gloria shows - is very clearly defined. 'At its simplest, it is expressing all the things that are unsaid in the text, particularly to do with the picture itself. Just as we have six characters on stage with every line adding, we hope, another dimension to the story, so the seven musicians add to the piece. The music is so integrated with the text that if they were to start singing it wouldn't be odd.' Indeed, there are two songs, a music-hall number for Lord Henry Wotton (Bette Bourne) and a setting of 'Fear no more the heat of the sun' for the actress Sybil Vane (Joanna Riding).

All the other music develops contrapuntally using four themes to depict old age and decay, a love theme, eternal youth and the picture itself. The themes are initially presented as the picture is complete and perfect. As it gradually decays, so does the music, but at the end it is restored to its original form. The musical structures are very classical: there's a fugue, a saraband etc, but they are developed theatrically. Scenes in which actors and music interact are interspersed with musical interludes showing the degeneration of the picture. 'I've written the social party scenes as scherzo and waltz movements because they are recognisably social musical forms. The music laughs at the characters. It's callous, but the characters don't hear it.'

The adaptation is set in the 1920s at the Savoy where a gathering of Wilde's friends act out the novel in his memory. 'I thought about the music which would be around then in artistic circles. Schoenberg, for example, but also jazz. But there was no consciousness of writing a historical piece. For example, many of the instrumental techniques I use are more modern: string slides, col legno etc. I wrote as I felt about the story. One of the great influences on me has been the English music-hall tradition, which I've used for the song, but that's the only pastiche in the show. I think the music that I write is very intensive, very emotional and thematically it tends to go full circle.'

Few of those commissioned by ENO are regular operagoers. Watching Gloria productions you know that Bloomfield and Neil Bartlett love the form and understand why a dramatic moment should be sung not spoken and vice versa.

'In a way the music can tell the story on its own, the text tells the story on its own and when they come together, it creates the complexity and cross tensions that Gloria is known for.'

At the Lyric Hammersmith (box-office: 081-741 2311). The music is available on CD