“I have never searched for happiness. Who wants happiness? I have searched for pleasure.” Censored prior to its debut in a literary magazine and banned upon its publication as a novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray has (for many) been reduced down to references to a portrait in the attic when someone looks impossibly fresh-faced & youthful – forgetting the dark price the subject would have had to pay. Partly inspired by the legend of Faust, Oscar Wilde also saw the book as an autobiography, of sorts: “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be – in other ages perhaps.” Since its publication in 1891, the book has spawned a variety of adaptations in multiple forms.
The latest is a piece of online theatre, written by Henry Filloux-Bennett & directed by Tamara Harvey. Co-produced by The Barn Theatre, Lawrence Batley Theatre, New Wolsey Theatre, Theatr Clwyd & Oxford Playhouse, this is a modern adaptation through-and-through; using the backdrop of COVID and lockdowns to its advantage, it is set in the world of influencers & filters, using FaceTime & online videos as the prime storytelling modes.
The unknown narrator of the book has been translated (in part) to the role of the Interviewer (played by Stephen Fry) and the documentary being made about Dorian Gray and the mysterious events surrounding his intimate social circle. Orphan Dorian is stuck at university, though he remains in contact with Harry Wotton & Basil Hallward, the two people in the world he’s closest to – photographer Basil is married, but completely enamoured with him, whilst social media influencer Harry is determined to lead him into temptation. Dorian tentatively begins vlogging, coming across as slightly awkward but charming nonetheless; his audience is small, but at that point it’s more something to occupy his time than anything too serious. This all changes after his 21st birthday party (or was it a fundraising event?), when he meets Sibyl Vane and Basil gifts him a filter he has developed that will allow him to retain his youthful looks on-screen – for “just the very smallest charge”…
[Potential spoilers ahead – please watch the show and come back for analysis]
There is a fine line to tread whenever a classic play or piece of literature is adapted for the 21st century: the logic of the fictional world has to be sound, and it cannot be too forced to fit the modern-day settings. I’m always a cautious blend of excited and wary at the prospect of ‘updating’ works (things like Romeo & Juliet, for example, need to be incredibly well thought through), but I’m pleased to say that this latest addition to The Barn Theatre Universe™ has absolutely smashed it. Not only does it work as a standalone piece of digital theatre, but it’s also really intelligently linked to the original story. There are plenty of beautiful visual nods to the aesthetic nature of the book (be it Harry’s dressing gown or Dorian’s wall hanging – kudos to Holly Pigott’s set & costume design, and Bryony Collishaw’s character design), but what I find most astounding is how well the plot mirrors that of Wilde’s narrative, just through a 21st century lens.
Flipping the original conceit so that Dorian is sacrificing his physical appearance for the perfect online presence is inspired; it is true that any Instagram grid is bound to tell an idealised story of someone’s life, and Dorian unwittingly (at first) carrying this out is almost as chilling as his descent into COVID conspiracy theory vlogs. As well as this being completely in line with the narrative of the book, it further raises the question of whether you can believe everything you see online – because of the ‘charge’ to his physical appearance, Dorian has to cover his face on the rare occasion he goes outside, despite this not aligning with his anti-face mask stance in his videos. Though in Dorian’s case the tirades are manifestations of the inner darkness that is steadily taking over, perhaps it will make you consider whether someone has shared something simply “for the likes”.
Joanna Lumley is perfectly cast as Lady Narborough, providing a sense of assurance as she recounts her side of the story, but also a knowing wink to the potential for a bit of innocent flirting. Russell Tovey does well with the secretive, dual nature of Basil’s character, making his interest in Dorian clear but only through gifts or suggestive comments; Emma McDonald’s Sibyl makes an indelible impact on the story, from her innocent & eager Shakespeare videos (harking back to the superb Bard From The Barn series) to the swift breakdown of her relationship with Dorian and untimely end. It’s the relationship between Dorian and Harry that really captures the imagination, however, thanks to the brilliant interplay between Fionn Whitehead and Alfred Enoch – all innuendo early on, with Enoch in bullish form as the outwardly confident Harry, replaced later with a sweet coyness that suggests Dorian is in control (even if he doesn’t realise it). Whitehead is at his most engaging in this role, and a real shapeshifter in later scenes when it becomes clear what price Dorian is paying for his hundreds of thousands of followers.
Ultimately, this production is a thrilling piece of entertainment – but it also makes you think. I’ve seen Wilde’s novel billed as a Gothic, philosophical comedy of manners, and I believe that is a pretty apt description for the show as well. To the production’s additional credit, they have also provided the details of several organisations that viewers can get in touch with if they are affected by anything they see in the show.
My verdict? A smart, funny & thrilling piece of digital theatre that speaks to the modern world – Fionn Whitehead at his most engaging.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is available to stream from 16 – 31 March 2021. Tickets are available from The Barn Theatre, Oxford Playhouse, Theatr Clwyd, New Wolsey Theatre or Lawrence Batley Theatre. Further information about the show can be found on the official website.