The Picture of Dorian Gray
Reviewed – 12th March 2021
“Set in a time of lockdown it is uncomfortably portentous, and it triggers the frightening thought that society might be stuck there”
When Oscar Wilde unleashed “The Picture of Dorian Gray” onto the world back in 1890, the Irish Times said it was ‘published to some scandal’ and the Daily Chronicle stated that it would ‘taint every young mind that comes in contact with it’. It is debatable whether Wilde courted such a reception, and it is difficult to imagine a similarly outraged reaction were it to be unveiled in today’s climate; but I’m sure he would have been proud of this modernised re-telling of the story. Not so much for the narrative itself but for the way it emulates the original’s intention to challenge the social mores of society. This production couldn’t be more up to date if it tried, as it cleverly tackles the pressures brought on by the growing obsession with our image. Our online image. The dusty attic with its decaying framed portrait has been replaced with the perfect pixels of selfies, and the Faustian pact for the flawless filter.
Written by Henry Filloux-Bennett and directed by Tamara Harvey it is a co-production between the Barn Theatre, Lawrence Batley Theatre, The New Wolsey Theatre, Oxford Playhouse and Theatr Clwyd: the team that brought us the equally ground-breaking “What A Carve Up!” last October. It treads a similar path, too, by wandering into the realms of docudrama – but with its finger right on the pulse. The story starts at a fund-raising event to support theatres during the pandemic; organised by Lady Narborough, brilliantly portrayed by Joanna Lumley. It is also Dorian’s twenty-first birthday party: the date is July 4th, 2020, the day when the first lockdown ended. Amongst the guests were four friends and we are tantalisingly informed that “within eight months, three of the four friends were dead”.
Lumley is being interviewed, via zoom, by Stephen Fry who is piecing together the series of events in retrospect. Lumley defensively primes Fry with the proviso that “if people are going to see this, I don’t want any come back”; an echo of Wilde’s contemporaries who began to disassociate themselves from him to avoid the fallout from the novel. What follows are echoes of the novel itself, resounding quite clearly and harmoniously within a wider polemic against the dark side of social media.
Fionn Whitehead is Dorian Gray, who makes a deal for his social star never to fade. For his perfect self that he broadcasts to the world to always remain. We all know the true, horrific cost of this will be unavoidably met, but it is the build-up to this that is as fascinating and exciting as the climax. Viewers who know nothing about the original story will be intrigued. Wilde aficionados will relish the anachronisms and twists. Most of the epigrams are there but they are given new and heightened meaning in Filloux-Bennett’s ingenious script. We also see the characters in a fresh light, and it is here that quite a few liberties are taken. As a result, though, the depth of some of the characters becomes a touch diluted. Many of Lord Henry (Harry) Wotton’s lines are given to Basil Hallward, the creator of the portrait, and vice versa. Whilst this serves to demonise Russell Tovey’s Basil to great effect, it relegates Harry Wotton’s role to more of a hanger-on than being instrumental in Dorian’s corruption. Alfred Enoch, however, gives a thoroughly nuanced performance that swings from devil-may-care bravado to owner of a bruised heart in a brush stroke.
The standout is Emma McDonald’s Sibyl Vane. Not so much a victim of Dorian’s murderous rejection, she instead suffers at the hands of internet trolls. McDonald has the star quality to allow us to believe fully in Sibyl’s star struck, vulnerability. We share her shock at the discovery of the potentially fatal power of social media networks; an unregulated battlefield of harassment and bullying. It is powerful viewing.
This production plants a classic Victorian tale into a modern world of fake news, conspiracy theories and obsession with how others see us. Set in a time of lockdown it is uncomfortably portentous, and it triggers the frightening thought that society might be stuck there. Dorian’s descent into corruption and unravelling mental health remains unwitnessed by the outside world. On screen, through the filter he has sold his soul for, he remains beautiful. But desperately alone.
Whilst never feeling like one, this is a state of the nation, public service broadcast, dressed up as a thought-provoking piece of digital theatre. If Wilde were around today it is exactly the sort of thing he would be exploring.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
The Picture of Dorian Gray
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