Director reveals untold story of the real man behind Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray

Gus Miller directs Picture of John Gray

Gus Miller directs Picture of John Gray - Credit: Archant

“On the surface it’s a traditional love story, in an unforgiving setting for a love story to unfold.”

Little, if nothing is known about John Gray, the young man seduced by Oscar Wilde who inspired the author’s novel The Portrait of Dorian Gray.

A Picture of John Gray, by CJ Willman, currently playing at the Red Lion Theatre, explores the relationship between Wilde and Gray, throwing fresh light on a moment in history which resonates so clearly today.

“The play is based on thorough research, all characters real people in the story,” says Gus Miller who directs it. “John was Oscar’s lover and then spurned by him. The play primarily follows the rest of John’s life and how you go through life with Dorian Gray on your shoulders.”

John Gray’s struggle between his faith and love for another man is the basic tenet of the period piece but its historical significance, though not spelt out directly, cannot be denied.

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“Oscar Wilde was the first person to be convicted under the new Gross Indecency law and one of the first men to be imprisoned for homosexuality in this country,” explains Miller. “Everyone in the play is part of his social circle and we see the enormous change in society affect the relationships between these men within in and the different ways they adapt and make compromises in a world that doesn’t necessarily accept them.

Miller and the play’s author Craig Willman met at Nottingham University, where Willman, while writing his dissertation on The Picture of Dorian Gray, became fascinated with the world surrounding Oscar Wilde. Gray, he discovered, was a carpenter from Bethnal Green, fostered into that society..

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“It seems such a perfect balance against today. Then was the first time it was made illegal and today is the first time it’s been made totally legal,” says Miller.

“Legally we’ve taken a huge step but there’s also an interesting dichotomy that in many ways today it’s more taboo than it was then. In terms of how they expressed themselves, they were the most fashionable men in society and today I think there’s still a huge amount of stigma attached despite the fact it is legal. It still has a real resonance, what is gay identity?”

The production is supported by Lord Browne, the first and only chief executive of a Fortune 500 company to publicly identify as gay, and Baron Chris Smith, one of the first openly gay MPs as well as other big names such as Stephen Fry.

It is also the first full London run for 24 year old Miller who has been directing plays for six years. “The play spans a huge amount of time and a number of places. It’s quite an epic journey and bringing that into a small space is a challenge, but one that I relish because you can engage the audience’s imagination and take them on the journey.”

He adds: “It’s a really beautiful charming love story set in a world that we no longer have to experience. It gives us quite a new different sideways look into the world of Oscar Wilde, a character we hear huge amounts about but we never see him on stage. It’s a side of that world people aren’t familiar with and it’s a really fascinating one.

It’s also interesting to see what happens to the man who had Dorian Gray on his shoulders as well, of who this man was and what became of him.”

5th - 30th August Old Red Lion Theatre, 418 St John’s Street, EC1V 4NJ 0207 837 7816 Tickets £15.00 (£13.00 Conc.)

Tues-Fri 7.30pm Sat 3pm : 7.30pm Sun 2pm

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