Collaboration, Connection and Coronavirus: An Interview with Theatr Clwyd’s Tamara Harvey on new online production, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Get The Chance critic, Beth Armstrong, chats to Tamara Harvey, Artistic Director of North Wales theatre, Theatr Clwyd. Tamara is the director of new online play, The Picture of Dorian Gray, featuring cross-county creatives and a star-studded cast. This adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s famous novel is a collaboration between the Barn Theatre, Lawrence Batley Theatre, New Wolsey Theatre and Oxford Playhouse with partner venues including Aberystwyth Arts Centre and Torch Theatre.

Tamara, congratulations on being named The Stage, Regional Theatre Of The Year. Can you tell me what that meant to you and the whole team at Theatr Clwyd?

Executive director Liam Evans-Ford and artistic director Tamara Harvey. Photo: Theatr Clwyd

It was just an amazing start to the year because everyone in the team has worked so hard whether they’ve been working on serving our community or creating online content or whether they’ve been on furlough and have had to navigate the emotional difficulties of that – home-schooling, friends and family being ill – so to have a moment where the industry and The Stage said ‘you’re doing alright’, you know, ‘keep going’ – it was a really good way to start 2021.

Well it’s a brilliant achievement. So your new production, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is an online play. Now online plays are becoming more commonplace amid the pandemic but each theatre has their own definition. Could you give us more details on what this play might look like or are you keeping it under wraps?

Yeah I’m very happy to. Essentially it’s born of the question of: ‘What can we do?’ So we can’t tell stories on our stages right now. What can we do? It’s a combination of audio recordings, found footage, filmed extracts – some filming taking place in person, socially distanced, obviously, and some in people’s own homes, so it’s come from adversity but hopefully it means that we’re just creating a slightly new way of experiencing the story.

It sounds really innovative. And there have been a lot of brilliant pieces of theatre, TV and film made during lockdown. Does your adaptation make any coronavirus parallels or does it provide a brief respite from it all?

I think it certainly provides respite, I would say, in that it’s full of brilliant actors and it’s a fascinating story. It is set now so there are moments that allude to the world we’re living in now but it isn’t a story about a pandemic. It’s a story about people living their lives in a particular moment in time.

So as you said it takes place now. The play modernises Oscar Wilde’s story and transforms Dorian Gray into a social media influencer. Recently many influencers have been criticised for travelling despite restrictions. Do you think audiences will have less sympathy towards the character in light of this? Will their opinions of him change in any way?

Ah, interesting…I think we each when we watch a story, when we experience of piece of theatre or digital storytelling, we bring our own experiences and our own opinions to it so I think everyone is likely to react to Dorian in a slightly different way, depending on whether they have experience of that online world or they don’t, whether it’s something that they’re completely familiar with or something that they find totally alien. I think, and I hope actually – it’s one of the stories with making a piece of theatre, whether it’s on screen or on stage – I hope that people will have different reactions depending on their own experiences.

Social media and the idea of keeping up appearances seem to be a key theme. Do you think the pandemic has increased our anxiety of showing off our best selves online or instead alleviated some of the pressure, as teachers and colleagues are now allowed a little window into our lives everyday – messy kitchens and all?

It’s certainly increased my anxiety! *laughs* There’s nothing like having to be on a TV screen every day, you know. The great joy of discovering you can turn off your self-view on Zoom is amazing. Look, I think it’s done both, hasn’t it? We’re having to spend more time – even if only at the moment when we sign onto a facetime or a Zoom or whatever – we’re spending more time seeing our own image and for some of us that’s, you know, not a pleasant experience, for others I’m sure it’s delightful. We’re also able to have pyjama bottoms on as long as only our top half is seen so it’s a really curious mix. I put on heels for the first time yesterday and it felt totally bizarre because I haven’t done that in months and so yeah, perhaps with all of these things, each of us is having such a different experience. You know it’s that thing – people have said we’re all in the same storm but in different boats. I’m having to spend almost all day everyday on Zoom and there are other people who don’t go near it. So I think it’s impossible to generalise really.

Rehearsing online and with social distancing measures must have presented a lot of challenges but are there any positive aspects or creative innovation to have come out of these restrictions?

Well the whole piece is a creative endeavour that wouldn’t have happened under any other set of circumstances. So the fact that it exists is in itself a positive coming out of this moment. Online rehearsals are…difficult. Partly because of the time lag, partly because there is a focusing thing that happens when you walk into a rehearsal room – you’re leaving your life behind, plugging into a different space and that focuses your mind, whereas if you’re in your own home, you’ve got the door going or you’ve got the dog barking, you know, or your kids running round, whatever it is. But there are advantages; I still get to have tea with my kids every day and people don’t have to leave their loved ones behind to travel. Given the choice, I will still want to be in a room with people but it is possible to find positives even online.

Yeah I think that’s true. So starring as the title character Dorian is actor, Fionn Whitehead, who audiences will no doubt recognise as the breakthrough star of Dunkirk. What do you think Fionn brings to the role?

Fionn is just extraordinary. On screen he is completely mesmerising and I think that’s to do with the rare combination of vulnerability and strength. And wit. And innocence. He’s a kind of fascinating mix and the other thing that’s such a joy about him is he’s just an incredible person to have on set because he’s utterly delightful every second of the day. That means that you can be playful and collaborative and try things and as a director, feel able to make mistakes or try something unexpected because he’s so open and engaged. He’s extraordinary.

Fionn Whitehead

The show is currently in pre-production but are there any aspects or ideas you’re particularly excited to share with the cast and other creatives?

Well we’ve kind of got everything, as it were, in the can. We’ve now done all of the filming. The bit that’s happening now, which is quite new for me and therefore really exciting, is the editing. And I’m in this lovely position where I’m spending most of everyday on Zoom with our amazing director of photography and editor, Ben Collins, from the Barn Theatre with both of us watching the dailies and working out the edit so there’s something really heart-warming in this moment about knowing that I’m up in North Wales in my regional theatre and he’s down in Cirencester in his but there’s this invisible string reaching between us as we both create a thing. And the whole time we’re watching onscreen all these other people who’ve come together, whether physically or remotely, to make a story in order to support regional theatre and that feels pretty special.

The cast of The Picture of Dorian Grey

I love that sense of connection that you have. So would you like to add anything else?

I suppose the only thing is that it’s worth saying that it does have what Henry Filloux-Bennett, who is the adapter, has done so beautifully – he’s managed to hold on to the spirit of the original which of course has all the wit of Oscar Wilde so as well as talking about social media and being about the downfall of this young man it’s also funny and fun and irreverent and all of those things.

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is adapted by Henry Filloux-Bennett

Thank you so much. I think that just leaves me to say best of luck and I can’t wait to see it.

Beth Armstrong

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