Gary Stringer reviews The Picture of Dorian Gray presented and streamed online by Barn Theatre Cirencester and others.
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Barn Theatre, Cirencester, and others, online
Watch Dorian Gray online
Arguably one of the original “influencers”, Oscar Wilde would no doubt be thrilled to see his scandalous morality tale, The Picture of Dorian Gray, continue to fascinate us. It has been brought kicking and screaming, or perhaps tweeting and streaming, into the time of Covid by the creative team behind the critically acclaimed What a Carve Up!, writer Henry Filloux-Bennett and director Tamara Harvey.
The challenges of social distancing mean that this new pre-recorded adaptation is, by necessity, an inventive production, making use of a variety of multimedia techniques to bring Oscar’s tale of aesthetics over ethics bang up to date. The production team do sterling work, with impressive sets and costumes by Holly Pigott while the work of Benjamin Collins as director of photography and the sound design and original music by Harry Smith add to the cinematic feel of the piece. There are many clever, subtle, and not-so-subtle nods to the theatricality of the piece and the fact that it is far removed from the usual live experience of watching a play.
Our anti-hero, Dorian, is played with requisite charm, albeit lacking some menace, by Fionn Whitehead. Here he is portrayed as a university student, dealing with the pressures of lockdown life in the middle of a global pandemic. Combined with this, like all young people, he is learning to find his place in our digital world of instant gratification, working out who he is and what he represents in an age of hashtags and clickbait. The feted Dorian is at the centre of an emotional tug of war between the shallowly foppish Harry Wotton – the excellent Alfred Enoch – and Russell Tovey’s Basil Hallward, now a software developer who is constrained by truths he is unwilling or unable to accept. Throwing further emotional temptation and turmoil into the mix is Sibyl Vane, brilliantly portrayed with both ambition and naivety by Emma McDonald. Sibyl is given short shrift within the lean running time, but this also highlights the fickle nature of Dorian’s affections, and of fame itself. There is many a reality TV personality that would sympathise with her fate.
Also underserved are the two National Treasures rounding out the cast. Stephen Fry as the Interviewer has very little part to play while Joanna Lumley as Caroline Narborough seems a missed opportunity to present the aspirations of someone outside the youth-obsessed demographics of social media. That she is eager to be part of this brave new digital world is touched upon but not fully explored.
Dorian’s descent into his own digital darkness throws a lot of contemporary issues into the mix, and it is here that this production struggles under the weight of its lofty ambitions. The 24/7 ubiquity of our always-connected digital lives, the loneliness, lack of privacy, cyber bullying, FOMO etc are all touched upon, all strands in a dark web that then looks to address the impact of fake news, conspiracy theories, the increasingly divisive nature of our media, consent and sexual abuse. It is a lot to cover, sometimes coming across as heavy-handed and a distraction from the strong performances.
Wilde’s original story features earnest truths about our obsessions with youth and beauty and our fears of growing old and obsolete. Our current digital age is the perfect platform to address these universal issues, and this engaging production certainly attempts to do just that. However, despite an impressive cast, like Dorian himself, it falls victim to this excess of ambition, and the core message is diluted. Perhaps as with all social media, less is often more.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is a collaboration between theatres across England and Wales, led by the Barn Theatre in Cirencester, Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre, Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre, Oxford Playhouse and Theatr Clwyd. It is online from 16 to 31 March. Tickets at pictureofdoriangray.com.