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Interview with playwright CJ Wilmann

5 August 2014 Charlie Kenber

"...and there's a scene set in a hot air balloon!"

Ahead of the opening of a new play about one of Oscar Wilde’s love affairs, we caught up with CJ Wilmann, the writer of The Picture of John Gray

London Calling: How did the project come about? Was it brought to you?

CJ Wilmann: From September 2012- September 2013, I studied on the University of Birmingham's Masters Course in Playwriting. As the main thrust of the course, I had to write a full-length play. Initially, I did not know anything at all about how this play would look. But I knew it would be about John Gray.

I'd discovered John Gray the year previously, when writing my English Literature dissertation at The University of Nottingham. He was only discussed in footnotes and small snippets in the various works on Wilde that I read – and most fascinatingly so in The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde by Neil McKenna. Nonetheless, I was astounded to learn that Dorian Gray was based on a real person and more astounded still when I found out what this real person's life consisted of.

LC: What attracted you to the story?

CJW: John Gray is one of the most interesting figures I've ever read about. And hardly anyone has ever heard of him. I feel I have almost a moral duty to change that – or at least attempt to.

LC: Can you tell us a little bit about the play?

CJW: It's about a man who struggles greatly with both his sexual identity and his identity at large. He wants various things throughout the play – shifting from poetic success to sanctuary in religion – but underneath it all, he wants to be loved. And yet, the love he finds is forbidden by both the laws of his religion and the laws of society.

That may sound bleak but in the rehearsed reading of the play back in January, the room was filled with laughter. It's funny – deliberately so in places and perhaps as a result of the audience's discomfort in others.

Above all I hope it's a play that will challenge people because it certainly doesn't set out to moralise. Wilde said one sees his own sins in The Picture of Dorian Gray. I like to think one sees their own morals in The Picture of John Gray.

LC: The director said that it’s a big play – how are you going about fitting into an intimate space?

CJW: I agree that it's big in terms of the story it tries to tell but, ultimately, John Gray's story is one that takes place in secret – In dark rooms (be they bedrooms or confessionals). Unlike Oscar Wilde's overtly public lifestyle, John grows to shun attention and live privately. As such, the intimate space assists the telling of this 'big play' perfectly.

LC: Who do you think the show will most appeal to?

CJW: Most obviously, anyone who is interested in Oscar Wilde, gay history or Victorian social life as a whole. But really, anyone at all who likes to be challenged by theatre, who likes the idea of a love story that doesn't realise it's a love story. And anyone who likes to laugh but isn't satisfied if that's all a play offers.

LC: What’s next?

CJW: The modern day! A break from historical study and, after many years, a break from Oscar Wilde. I'm sure he'll pop back into my writing though and I also very much hope this play has a life after August.

LC: Finally, why should people come and check out the play?

CJW: It has a wonderful cast of talented young actors, a skilled director and a great team behind it. Watching them bring the play to life has been a wonderful experience. It also, as I say, tells the story of one of the most fascinating (and yet widely unknown) historical figures of all time. And there's a scene set in a hot air balloon!

The Picture of John Gray is on at the Old Red Lion from 5th – 30th August. Tickets from £10, available here.

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