Sunday, December 5

Joanna Lumley on The Image of Dorian Gray: ‘The obsession with beauty is so relevant today’ | Theater

You’re starring in a digital production of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Has the story been updated?
It is an extraordinary recovery of the Oscar Wilde story, with everything this world knows: Instagram, Facebook, dating apps. I play Lady Narborough, whom Stephen Fry interviews, playing someone who is trying to piece together how this sad story came to be. We did it like they were interviewing me on a Zoom call. I first saw Wilde’s novel as a play in Greenwich, London, in 1975 with Michael Kitchen as Gray. The obsession with beauty is so relevant today – when you think of people beautifying their images on their phones, frenzied competition, and appearance anxiety.

How have the demands on the appearance of actors and the nature of fame changed throughout your career?
Enormously. When I started, I wanted to act because I loved to act. It sounds naive but you never think on the fame side. He just hopes that he can have a job, that he can pay the gas bill, that his name is mentioned in a review, that then he can get another job as an actor. That’s how far my ideas got. I was not very aware of the billing; if someone said they would like a higher billing than me they would say yes. None of those things bothered me.

She had been a model for three years before she started acting. It became a source of pride that you never bought the magazines you were in or pursued your own career. You alone do some things for Vogue, you wouldn’t get a copy of them. So we were the opposite of being obsessed with our looks. Now I am a grandmother and I am concerned about young people. Trying to look like other people, or what would be considered acceptable, only leads to unhappiness. I am afraid of social networks, it seems that a Pandora’s box has been opened. It is absolutely addictive. Everyone is face down looking at a screen. What can they be checking?

'We did it like I was on a Zoom call to Stephen' ... Joanna Lumley in The Picture of Dorian Gray
‘We did it like I was on a Zoom call to Stephen’ … Joanna Lumley in The Picture of Dorian Gray

Like Dorian Gray, you have posed for portraits. What have you learned?
I love portraits. I think they are fascinating. I’ve also been photographed too many times to mention it, either as a character or as myself. Some artists love you talking. If you’re holding a pose, you just have to sit back and put your mind to cruise control, without looking incredibly sad. I always feel part of the creative process, instead of being “trapped”. It is alchemy. I sat down for David Bailey several times over the years at his request, which was very flattering. David has gone back to the old ways of capturing things, like plate photography. This could be a reaction to the possibility that so many people can take pictures, and to the doctor. People like Bailey or Annie Leibovitz, or the great action photographers, just want to take the photo, not manipulate it.

One year after the Covid crisis, what are your fears for the theater?
Theaters should have something like 70% capacity to cover expenses. As an actor looks out as an auditorium fills up, if it’s only half full, you say, “Oh damn, bad house tonight.” So the idea that we can make plays work when you only have half a house isn’t really practical. If you have a two-handed, you may be able to get by. But if you’re doing something like Les Miserables, you have a massive cast, costumes, all hands on stage, an orchestra. You can’t afford it. Cramming an audience is what makes a play, opera, or musical soar. I’m bingeing on all kinds of TV right now, but there’s nothing quite like a live performance.

Lumley with Nigel Havers in Finding Alice.
Lumley with Nigel Havers in Finding Alice. Photograph: Joss Barratt / Red Productions / ITV

You’ve had a busy few months on TV, especially with Finding Alice, returning for a second series.
That is magnificent. It was weird because he didn’t really fit easily into a particular category. It was not a crime drama. It was not a comedy. It wasn’t a boo-hoo, look at me, we’re sad. I am delighted that they have the confidence to do a second series. Nigel Havers and I have known each other since time began, so it was lovely to be with him as a rather dysfunctional couple. He’s a great storyteller, the most fun to be with. I’ve been a love interest to him once before, in A Perfect Hero, when he played a flying ace from WWII.

What is your next travel documentary?
We have a great travel program following the spice route that begins in the Banda Islands and travels through Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Jordan and Egypt. A massive trip. It looks like we’ll do it later this year. Enough countries are already open. There is this intense debate about vaccination passports. It wouldn’t bother me one iota. Everyone is quickly thinking about how to do this. Could you have an app on your phone to show that you have been inoculated?

Dorian Gray explores hedonism. What’s the most hedonistic thing you’ve ever done?
In Ab Fab, Patsy peels off her entire face and imagines herself being photographed for Hello! magazine looking incredibly radiant, but her face is raw red. I’ve never wanted spas, pampering, and the like. I’m an old Spartan with a closed jaw: rough blankets, eating out, that will do.

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