Monday , November 22 2021

Theater Interview: Emma McDonald from ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’

A new digital production of The Picture of Dorian Gray is available online now through March 31. Written by Henry Filloux-Bennett and directed by Tamara Harvey, the production is a modern take on Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel about a man’s desire for eternal youth. This time around, Gray is willing to pay a heavy price to keep his social media star burning brightly.

The cast includes Fionn Whitehead as Dorian Gray, Alfred Enoch as Harry Wotton, Joanna Lumley as Lady Narborough, Emma McDonald as Sibyl Vane, Russell Tovey as Basil Hallward, and Stephen Fry as the Interviewer.

UK theatres joining as co-producers for the exciting project included the Barn Theatre, Lawrence Batley Theatre, New Wolsey Theatre, Oxford Playhouse, and Theatr Clwyd. Check out the main website for more information about the 20 partner venues involved. Tickets cost £12, with your viewing link expiring 48 hours after the “performance” date you purchased. Keep in mind that the themes of the show make this production better suited for individuals age 16 and up.

I recently spoke with actress Emma McDonald to find out more about the production and how she prepared for her role.

How did you decide to go into acting? 

I’ve always really enjoyed acting. I actually started more with dance when I was very small, ballet at the age of three. I wasn’t very good at the technical side of it. I have bow legs and my technique was horrible. I was really good at the performance side. Even from a young age, I’d be put in the lesser technical and I suppose the lesser pretty roles. I’d be playing the villain in the ballet. I was always geared more towards that. 

Then I joined my local musical theatre group. I’d go on a Saturday. I’d be the person who’d read in the assemblies in primary school. I’ve always liked it. I’ve been a bit loud and bossy since I was a child. I think that was the route for me! [laughs]

What are important lessons you learned that have stuck with you? 

Don’t be afraid to ask questions! Don’t be afraid to say the wrong thing either. I suppose that’s the only way to learn. Volunteer yourself for things even if you think it’s a little scary, because you’ll always learn something from it. 

When did you first read Dorian Gray?

I did a production of Dorian Gray a few years ago at the Watermill Theatre, which is a lovely theatre in Berkshire. It was done as a three-hander with two other women, written by Phoebe Eclair-Powell. It’s a brilliant story. We took it around schools with the set in the autumn. It was on the syllabus. That was my first encounter. I listened to the Audible production as well. It was Russell Tovey reading it. Of course, he is in this production, and that’s sort of come full circle which is brilliant. 

Do you like any of Oscar Wilde’s other works? 

I do! There are a few different quotes in this production from Oscar Wilde himself. Look out for that. 

Share your process in preparing for this production. Was it filmed entirely in a virtual format, or did you meet anyone in person?

Photo of actress Emma McDonald

We did meet. I had a song, which was a big challenge for me. I’ve sung in the past, but I’ve never sung on film before! It was an original piece of music written for the production by Jared Zeus. That is a very theatrical element of the story, because it’s a mix of film and theatre. I had to learn the song and listen to it on repeat. I found a key suitable for my voice. It was filmed at the Barn Theatre, not virtually.

Then I had a few scenes with Fionn Whitehead, who plays Dorian. We filmed some of those virtually. I did them on my laptop over Zoom. I also had my phone taped to my laptop, attached to several rulers since the angle was better. That was interesting and a very new thing for me! I’m not that tech literate in that sense and that was a challenge. 

We had some scenes on set. And I think Joanna Lumley as well had quite a few days at Barn Theatre. There was a local cottage to film at. Alfred Enoch filmed scenes on set, too. I filmed little TikTok videos. We’ve got loads of Shakespeare thrown in there. It’s a real mix and hopefully it melds together nicely. 

But in preparing for this, I learned my lines and had to think about bringing some lightness to it. It can be quite a dark production: beautifully dark and brilliant, but trying to find lightness, fun, and silliness within it. I listened to director Tamara Harvey who was brilliant. We had two hours of Zoom rehearsals before filming, which is a lot shorter than the month you would have in normal theatre. It was focused and honed work. I chatted with Fionn as well about our relationship in the piece. 

I was trying to have fun with it. It was brilliant being able to play with other actors and creatives after a long lockdown period. 

Could you talk more about the modern-day premise of this production? It makes sense when you think of the obsession and stardom in social media we struggle with today.

You’ve said it eloquently. For your presentation online, especially over lockdown – my screen time certainly went up as I’m sure it did for many. Also, [with] the isolation in lockdown, I think people have lived more of their social lives online through their laptops and their phones. They’re following other people and comparing and contrasting. Social influence plays a massive part. Vanity itself and obsessing over how you look to stay young and look youthful are key themes in Dorian Gray.

They make sense to a modern-day and probably a young audience as well. There’s Zoom and Facetime footage. Yet it feels very respectful of Oscar Wilde’s original story. It doesn’t stray too much from that, while staying very relevant and exciting.

Sybil’s story is what I remember most from reading Dorian Gray in school. It left me thinking that Dorian could have tried harder to reach happiness. What are your thoughts about Sybil? 

I agree. I think she’s the most important thing in the production. [laughs] Like you say though, she’s like his last hope. That’s the tipping point with what happens following from that moment. He could have had a completely different path. It’s a last key moment where he’s happy and full of love, optimism, and hope. When I did it a few years ago, that was the storyline I was most hooked into with that sense of loss from it. 

We’ve done something really interesting in our production line with Sybil’s storyline. We’ve made it relevant to a younger audience, as I said, with the TikToks. That sense of sharing in lockdown where people want to share creatively, we’ve got a lot of that in it. You see the world through her eyes as she’s very excited in the story. 

This key moment with Dorian gets referred to quite a lot later in the production, on what could have happened. I sing a very lovely song which I hope the audience will enjoy.

Ending on a light note, what do you hope to keep doing in the future? 

I spend a lot of my time gardening. Whatever my career leads me to, I always want to spend time outdoors. I think a lot of people will be similar in that regard. So the next thing for me is going to be sowing my cucumber plants. I’ve set up my cherry tomatoes indoors. I live my life with plants surrounding me now. Every paycheck that comes in, a lot of that gets spent on plants because they purify the air and make me happy. That’s one way I’ve changed in the last year. 

Also, I’d like to have more fun. I’ve been writing a lot more. I’ve had exciting auditions coming of late. I’ve got my fingers and toes crossed for them. So gardening and acting! 

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About Pat Cuadros

Pat Cuadros is a frequent reviewer of all things Washington, D.C. She also covers events in Canada and London. Her highlights include interviews with Juliette Binoche, Daniel Davis, Fran Drescher, Derek Jacobi, and Ndaba Mandela.

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