It’s the first anniversary of when theatres were first closed down, so what a day to release one of the online theatrical highlights of the year so far. Last year’s sensational What A Carve Up! adapted from Jonathan Coe’s novel and produced by The Barn, Cirencester, The Lawrence Batley, Huddersfield and the New Wolsey, Ipswich was nothing short of a triumph. Now we have another game changer from the same team (along with Oxford Playhouse and Theatr Clwyd) in the form of The Picture Of Dorian Gray which seems like it could have been conceived yesterday.
If you think you know this Oscar Wilde story, you’d probably be right but then, as the very clever writer/adapter Henry Filloux-Bennett and visionary director Tamara Harvey have clearly done, think again. For while the characters remain largely true to the original the timeframe has been radically updated to the present day – Covid 19 and all. This proves to be a masterstroke for a number of reasons, not least in spotlighting one of the central themes of the novel – man’s never ending capacity for vanity and self-promotion. Thus, we not only get a take on Wilde’s original but also a blistering commentary on the perils of social media, the lack of a moral compass and the corrupting influence of fame at any price. As the epigram, which could have come from Wilde himself but is actually from St. Mark’s gospel, has it “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, but lose his soul?”
The story starts with a framing device as the dissolute Harry Wotton and society philanthropist “Lady” Narborough are being interviewed online about their recollection of events which ended tragically some time before. What emerges is the history of young Dorian, a social media vlogger and influencer who has hordes of followers and very few scruples. He starts as a rather more self-effacing student of English Literature, discovered in lockdown in his university room and taking his first tentative steps towards online celebrity and influencerhood by starting up his own You Tube channel. Although it starts out as a discussion forum for books it soon becomes all about the “likes”. He is discovered by the dissolute Harry Wotton who gradually becomes his bestie/lover and there’s further tussling for the young man’s soul (not to mention his body) when photographer and software whizz, Basil Hallward enters the scene. Dorian’s sexuality is definitely fluid and he in turn falls for rising actress Sybil Vane who has her own developing following on Instagram. And then, of course, it all goes horribly wrong for her. Having once stood on the RSC stage myself concerned that my mind would go a blank, I could more than fully empathise in the scene where Sybil’s lines desert her in front of the entire audience. And it’s not long before the other characters find themselves being drawn into the maelstrom of Dorian’s rise and fall.
As with its predecessor, this production is extremely well cast and the actors turn in some brilliantly realised performances. Fionn Whitehead charts a course from gauche introvert to the hedonistic debauchee in the title role, Emma McDonald completely convinces as the heartbroken Sybil and Joanna Lumley and Russell Tovey are ideal choices as Caroline Narborough and Basil Hallward. Best of all is Alfred Enoch’s portrayal as Harry Wotton, the society wit role which Oscar Wilde usually wrote into his plays as a thinly veiled version of himself. Oozing Eton style privilege and dripping with charisma, Enoch’s embodiment of understated evil for me stole the show. None more so than when he was uttering some of Wilde’s famous aphorisms (some borrowed from elsewhere) which, along with many a nod to Shakespeare, Filloux-Bennett has tantalisingly woven throughout the show. It looks sensational too with the settings and costumes fabulously realised by Holly Piggott with clever little referential touches such as the poster of The Importance Of Being Earnest at the society fund raiser. It was moments like this and the hauntingly insistent music by Harry Smith that really made the production sing.
There is one more coup which pleased this reviewer no end. There’s no actual painting in this version; rather the production brilliantly turns everything on its head by having the real Dorian showing the ravages of his debauched lifestyle and highly morally questionable choices on that oh so perfect face. Meanwhile by means of an online filter his youthful image is preserved and even enhanced for all the world to see. This means that Dorian is never seen in public without a Covid mask which is just so clever I found myself punching the air in delight. And if the big reveal at the end of the original may be lost it’s a small price to pay for the infinitely more satisfying way the idea has been reimagined. Inevitably, of course, there will be the usual questions about whether this is a film or a theatre piece, but actually I don’t care – it is satisfyingly captivating either way and if theatre has had to change its form to current circumstances then let’s do it as well as this production manages to do. As Oscar himself once said: “I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.” We need to hang onto that thought right now.
The Picture Of Dorian Gray is streaming from its own dedicated website – click here
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