Making his playwriting debut with Dorian, poet Andrew McMillan’s retelling of Oscar Wilde’s novel is set in a gym. He tells Ruth Comerford how he hopes it will raise discussion of men’s body image…
What is your play about?
Theatre company Proper Job has done two plays in its Monster Trilogy, in which it takes established narratives and recast them for a modern audience. My play is the third in the series. What’s interesting about The Picture of Dorian Gray is that very few people have read it, but everyone knows the story. It just seemed immediately to me that setting it in a gym would begin to play with ideas of the way we view the self. There is a thing called Dorian Gray Syndrome in which people, usually middle-aged, feel dissatisfied with the way they look and really want to change. I knew Dorian had to be a middle-aged bloke after discovering that. There’s often such a focus on youth and body image but it affects people at all ages.
What happens in the play?
Dorian hires a personal trainer, to make him bulk up. He can’t see any progress in the photos. His son is going through something I had first-hand experience of: wanting to be much thinner. Part of what I wanted to do with the play is put the two extremes side by side because we often give a lot of sympathy to eating disorders, but when we see these men in the gym who are looking to get bigger and bulk themselves up, we tend to mock that. There’s a lot of contempt rather than the sympathy. I think they’re two sides of the same coin, and there is a conversation to be had about that.
Is there enough discussion of body image and masculinity?
We are slowly getting to talk about it more. We haven’t reached the stage where men feel totally comfortable talking about their bodies, and there is definitely a link between male suicide and body image. We are presented with bodies that aren’t achievable all the time, in films online, on Instagram. There’s a correlation between former sufferers of eating disorders and professional body builders, because it’s another way of exerting control. We need a broader spectrum of bodies and body images to be seen in the media. I hope this play has the ability to speak to younger audiences who are just on the cusp of their body changing, which is often when body issues emerge.
How is writing a play different from poetry?
It’s been such an interesting experience. Usually I work on my own when writing poetry and then I share it, but I’ve given the play over to the actors and directors who all bring something to it. It feels much less lonely, because generally I’m by myself working on verse, showing it to an editor occasionally, whereas this has been much more collaborative. It’s incredibly difficult to hold the world in your head and have all these different voices and characters, and wondering what the audience is going to think about it. But I do think I will try it again. If I try it and it doesn’t quite work, poetry will always be there.
Training: BA in English, Lancaster University (2007-10); MA in Modernism, UCL (2011-13)
First professional writing credit: Writing Runs on the Board as part of the Cultural Olympiad (2012)
Agent: Chris Wellbelove at Aitken Alexander