Square Chapel, Halifax
I don’t think I’ve ever walked into a theatre auditorium and been handed a discount leaflet for a gym. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever been handed a discount leaflet for a gym at all – one look at me and I’m thankfully seen as a lost cause, so I’m allowed to continue on my way unencumbered by an unwanted flyer. Not so tonight. On my way to my seat, a flyer was thrust enthusiastically into my hand. As recorded questions about body image played over the sound system (Are you happy with yourself? Which part of your body is your favourite?) I investigated the leaflet, presenting me with the opportunity to Get Hench with Harry. No thanks, I thought, while I’m not happy with my body, I’m certainly not in a hurry to become hench, and so filed it away in the darkest recess of the programme in my hand. It turns out that the leaflet and my ensuing thoughts were far more relevant to Dorian that I’d initially realised.
Dorian, written by poet Andrew McMillan, and brought to the stage by Huddersfield’s Proper Job theatre company, tells the story of Dorian, a widower in his mid 50s, who enlists the services of Harry to help him sculpt his aging and sagging figure into the body of his dreams. His son Sam is having his own crisis. He plays in a band with his girlfriend, Sarah, and is feeling the pressure of maintaining a perfect image for the band’s social media presence. In turn, Sarah works as a photographer for Harry and produces a photoshopped image of Dorian’s target figure, an image to inspire him through a 6 month fitness program.
This play forms the final part of the company’s Monster trilogy and takes its inspiration from Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey. Using Wilde’s story as a starting point, Dorian examines the twisted and destructive relationship between body image and fitness culture, as well social media and image manipulation. The cast perform directly to the audience as well as into a variety of webcams, mobile phones and laptops. Their images, recorded videos and streaming footage are displayed on a wall of screens at the rear of the stage as the cast take selfies, manipulate images of themselves and each other, and host live streams of their performances.
The four strong cast are superb. Rick Ferguson’s performance as Dorian is an absolute delight as he deftly navigates the character’s journey from likeable, vulnerable father through to an altogether more monstrous and self-obsessed figure. Chris Casey, as fitness instructor Harry, gives an appropriately energetic performance – standing high on stools to tower over the audience, doling out catchphrases (“I’m a midwife of muscle!”) to his eager student. He also transforms into his own version of a monster as he begins to physically dominate the other characters and grows increasingly violent. My own ponderings on my own body and fitness levels – as well of those of the entire audience – intertwined with the themes of the play as Harry strode around the auditorium, picking out audience members to demonstrate the notion of the ideal body to his fitness class. Elizabeth Harborne’s character, Sarah, is often responsible for laying bare Dorian’s themes as she records videos on “image optimisation” for her captive social media audience. She then switches out of “social media” character and turns to address the audience directly, admitting to her lies, explaining that the pursuit of a perfect image is merely an industry and that this industry’s customers are also its victims. Meanwhile Neil Balfour, as Sam, inhabits the rear of the stage, sitting at a keyboard as he provides both soundtrack duties and a heartbreaking image of a soul ripped apart by social media-inspired body dysmorphia.
What starts out as a very sweet, humorous and relatable production, soon takes a nastier turn, appropriately for a play series entitled Monster. There’s a key scene at the heart of the play that rings true. Sam and Sarah are dining out at a restaurant, but they both stare into their phones, ignoring one another. Sarah takes selfies and photos of her sushi, and the resulting Instagram pictures uncontrollably flood the backdrop, endlessly tweaked and adorned with an increasingly elaborate amount of emojis. The reality that sits in front of this backdrop – Sam and Sarah, silent and miserable – exposes the lie behind these pictures. Soon, these pictures overload the screens and they begin to glitch and distort, a nightmarish vision of social media’s warped version of reality.
Proper Job make strong use of Meyerhold’s theatrical biomechanics, with its emphasis on precise and dynamic physical movements. This really complements the action in Dorian, as the focus on physical presence fits neatly into this world – these characters are forever posing for the camera, exaggerating or concealing their physical traits to portray a very different image of themselves to the world, almost lying to themselves through their very actions, betraying their true selves. This at its most evident in the restaurant scene: Sam and Sarah carry chairs towards their table, navigating their way across the stage in very stiff and staccato lines, a very rigid and formal dance, portraying a couple whose interactions have become uncomfortable and alien.
There are a lot of individual components that make up Dorian – family drama, philosophical musings, songs, action sequences, multimedia elements and an ever evolving set. In lesser hands, this could easily result in a muddled and confusing production, but producer/ director Chloe Whitehead and director James Beale handle this with ease. Cast members move across this shifting stage with a fluidity and ease that allow McMillan’s wonderful script to shine. There isn’t a moment wasted in this production and it all builds up to a horrific climax as all these individual elements build up to a monstrous cacophony, a real cautionary tale for those who may obsess over their physical appearance and how they present themselves to the world. Superb