In our third month of this lockdown, and with most of our connection to the world relying on the medium of screens of varying sizes, I read the show programme with trepidation.
A Dorian Gray filtered through the lens of social media and set in 2020, during the pandemic? An online play partly filmed in the Barn Theatre, not only reminding us that theatres are still closed but also situating itself right in the middle of the seemingly inescapable social media hole that many of us, through seeking out art, are desperately trying to escape? Will it avoid the cringe of a mainstream medium trying to be ‘internet-y’ and ‘current’, or indeed of a Covid-centred play that really just is Too Soon? Will it fail to acknowledge that despite its deeply cut flaws, social media has also been a lifeline out of isolation and for activism and solidarity for so many during this pandemic?
Thankfully Henry Filloux-Bennett has adapted the novel with a degree of interest in the double edges of social media’s particular sword. It transposes Wilde’s trademark view of society: living for beauty, connection and the drama, but acutely aware of its power to convict and to corrupt.
This adaptation frames The Picture of Dorian Gray as a documentary film, intercut with video call footage and social media content, which attempts to piece together in true-crime-style what went so wrong for Dorian. It’s remarkably effective, with the visual quality of something you might see on the BBC. I’m struck throughout by how brilliant and just —-lush-— the lighting makes everything look, and how the lighting evolves thematically over time (chef’s kiss to Benjamin Collins’ cinematography). It’s a welcome kind of hyper-real matched by the meticulous set design, an escape for someone so bored of the detail of the inside of my own home.
Stephen Fry makes appearances (too few, much to the chagrin of my viewing partner) via a laptop screen to conduct interviews with the prim Lady Narborough (Joanna Lumley) and perpetually lounging Henry Wootton (Alfred Enoch).
The documentary framing is a clever, socially-distanced way to capture the entertaining cattiness of Wilde’s characters – vain and pontificating, reacting to the footage of each other and their friends. Alfred Enoch, who recently excelled in Chichester Theatre’s livestreamed Crave, is sublime as Dorian’s overbearing aristocratic best friend Henry Wootton, updated as a larger-than-life, but still incredibly arcane RP moustachioed socialite who holds forth at the Oxford Union (of course they’d invite him, of course he votes Tory). (Although Snapchat is Wooton’s drug of choice, which… does anyone even use Snapchat anymore?).
Tamara Harvey and editor/DoP Benjamin Collins wonderfully establish the piece’s coherence despite so many different modes of address and media to stitch together, even if you do start to feel at arm’s length with the handheld camera-work and suspenseful music, which sometimes work against them. But then we meet Dorian Gray and the naturalistic video calls and messages start to tug at your heart with new levels of intimacy and nuance. Comparisons with Black Mirror (and indeed Bandersnatch in which Whitehead starred) would be a little facile – but it certainly shares some of those vibes.
Fionn Whitehead is disarmingly engaging and superbly navigates Dorian’s transition from sincere English student, holed up in his uni room making awkward YouTube videos nobody’s watching to a popular influencer who… well, as per the novel, the transformation is stark. It’s of course striking the extent to which this play has had to adopt the vocabulary of the screen to fill the demands of its online setting. Given enough resources and a decision not to livestream, we’ve definitely evolved beyond theatre productions sitting two cameras in an auditorium and watching it play out. This is less theatre and more a feature-length film. And as such, Whitehead’s performance is the beautifully nuanced one of a highly skilled screen actor. I’m drawn into the decline and the fall, and feel dread in the pit of my stomach.
The scene-stealer though is Emma McDonald as the the young aspiring actress Sibyl Vane, who Dorian falls for her through her Tik-Tok videos. I chuckle a bit at the ‘0 views’ and ‘0 comments’ count (yep, it checks out) on her earnest Shakespearean monologues. McDonald’s singing voice is stunning and her performance of powerlessness against her passions heartbreaking.
But her tragic storyline, although following the original, feels jarring here. Dorian’s turn against her is too swift, her decline and death too engineered, forced. Maybe I wouldn’t feel this way about her arc if I didn’t have a big lingering question at the centre of this adaptation. What point is it trying to make?
Because, for the most part, Filloux-Bennett shows meticulous knowledge of the vocabulary of internet territories. Social media affiliations stand in for political leanings. Facebook is for old people, whence Lady Narborough ought to go, if she weren’t so stubborn. Twitch is for livestreamers, and the darker side of the conspiracy theory web. He updates Basil Hallward (Russell Tovey) from painter to a rich tech entrepreneur infatuated with Dorian’s beauty, and who sets him up with the software to look perpetually glowing and irresistible on camera forever. It all seems to be about social media’s possibility for connection, and its danger.
But as a cautionary tale about online radicalisation and the dangerous desire for influencer fame, it just seems to fall short. Dorian isn’t seeking a hedonistic life here, he just wants people to like his insta posts. In the flow of the piece, you don’t mind so much that the semiotics of the central premise of the ‘picture’ remain hazy, but in retrospect, it’s confusing. What stands in for the picture, if the perpetual beauty offered by it is only visible through a screen?
The answer is: Dorian himself. I suspect the intent of this reversal is to demonstrate how the person you are online can become so detached from the person you are in real life. But you don’t see much of either with Dorian here, you mainly see him stuck in his room livestreaming or flirting with Henry (as an aside, there’s something interesting about seeing Wilde’s queer characters in this overtly modern setting. The restraint in their interactions feels anachronistic, but it is of course just as easily idiosyncratic, which makes you wonder how diverse the expressions of queerness which we see in theatre actually are.). Or maybe it’s to show how he’s neglecting his real-life self and his friendships because he wants too much to be an online personality? And if he’s the archetypal beautiful terrible person, who’s beautiful mainly online, doesn’t that just make him like every other young person obsessed with Facetune and VSCO? Is that the point? I don’t know!
I usually welcome huge central ambiguities with warm hugs and refreshments, but I feel this mechanical question detracts from me understanding what the play is ultimately getting at. The final image of The Picture of Dorian Gray, the novel, taps into a lasting haunting gothic horror. The reversal when two doppelgängers come face to face, blurring the lines between oneself and the monster – which represents the true self? Because we never see those who fawn over Dorian online, or really get to know him offline, we don’t feel that particular identity-based confrontation at all. Crucially, any message about society, selfishness, beauty and vice, doesn’t get through.
I am certain not everyone would question this world’s rules so closely though. It’s undoubtedly an engaging and witty production that creatively tells a rich and spine-tingling story in a way I’ve certainly never seen before. A testament to the resilience and brilliance of artists in these strange times.
The Picture of Dorian Gray runs online until 31st March. More info here.