Of the Olympus-style pantheon of dead writers toasting the sky with whiskey and amphetamines, Oscar Wilde would, I bet, have the most Insta followers. Come on, the guy had style.
For this reason, a dark, new adaptation of Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” under the motto “Social Media” feels like a great sibling of the 1890 novel. That is, if it’s not too immersed in its refined production techniques and moralism, a sticking point for those familiar with Wilde’s satirical eye, which was more about having fun than preaching.
In the original, the beautiful, innocent young title character is the subject of a painting by his friend Basil. Dorian wishes his youth to be preserved as shown in the portrait and is corrupted by a charismatic hedonist named Lord Henry Wotton. As he becomes more cruel, his portrait changes to reflect the ugliness of his thoughts and actions. Dorian remains beautiful, but is tormented by feelings of guilt and disgust.
The modern adaptation, a five-theater co-production written by Henry Filloux-Bennett and directed by Tamara Harvey, turns Dorian (a winning – and yes, effortlessly handsome – Fionn Whitehead) into a gentle English university major who quickly turns into a social Environment breaks out media star.
The piece is framed as a documentary set in an online world, isolated from the pandemic, about the rise and fall of the character. Underutilized as the film’s interviewer, Stephen Fry asks Dorian’s friend and admirer Lady Narborough (Joanna Lumley) for her account of what happened.
But they’re not in the same room. She speaks to Fry through a laptop screen, one of the myriad of technologies – FaceTime, security cameras, YouTube videos, and text messages – that we use to display the action. It gives the story an unsettling sense of voyeurism.
Your report begins on Dorian’s 21st birthday, when his friend Basil (Russell Tovey, only present as face and voice) does not give him a painting, but rather a software that captures his image – via pictures and videos – in its youngest and most beautiful form. Our daffodil falls in love with the software and also falls in love with a young actress, Sibyl Vane (Emma McDonald), whom he eventually rejects if it does not match the ideal of perfection that he has in his head.
Meanwhile, Basil and his libertine friend Harry Wotton (a skilled Alfred Henoch, positively seduced with seductive charm) fly helicopters around Dorian – in love, protective and possessive at the same time.
Wild numbers can be seamlessly translated into the world of Bitmojis and social media chatters. But language shimmers the most when it vacillates between “lol” text language and the grandiose utterances that are reminiscent of the romantics. This Dorian quickly transitions from firing a quick explosive for relaxation to the elaborate poetry of a desperate plea: “Burn me with all the passions and thoughts you want. My skin was pale. Cloud my eyes … Let me keep all the tender blossoms and loveliness of youth that this magic gives me. “
All of this is underlined by the polished quality of the production itself, which, thanks to Benjamin Collins, fascinates like a Twitter scroll Cinematography and editing, plus Holly Pigott’s stage and costume designs, a combination of modern and Victorian clever enough to captivate even the most fashionable Insta user.
But even like with a Twitter timeline, the flood of information can be overwhelming: The nested viewing experience of watching videos in videos and screens on screens effectively leads to our digitally controlled pandemic life, but production soon feels overwhelmed.
The question also arises: is this show, even though co-produced by The Barn, Lawrence Batley Theater, New Wolsey Theater, Oxford Playhouse, and Theatr Clwyd, still considered theater? (It is a question that my colleague Alexis Soloski also asked the last team in many of these theaters: “What a Carve Up!”. No, not so much the trust in these nifty production techniques with recorded, thoroughly edited performances would be suspect to let .
I’m not going to argue about the medium, especially when the pandemic has blurred the line between theater and film, but I will deny the moral shift of this adaptation. In Wilde’s novel, characters die as direct or indirect victims of pride or ego; Social media and cyberbullying in particular are the culprits here.
That’s fair, but “Dorian Gray” – with its awkward coronavirus advisories and warnings about the spread of fake news, Dorian’s spiral in conspiracy theories, and Basil’s YouTube video on mental health – tiptoes too often into didactics.
It is the central relationships – everyone is drawn to Dorian playing with their affections – that build the most enticing drama of how beauty and innocence can be perverted by the world and even used as weapons. For example, I would have loved to see more of Harry’s complicated association with Dorian and Dorian’s messy code dependency with Basil, who in this version is older, predatory, and withdrawn. The fascinating nuances of these sexual, emotional, and power dynamics are briefly summarized.
“Beauty is a form of genius,” Wilde wrote memorably in the novel. He didn’t talk about theater, but he could have been. The beauty we encounter in nature is exquisite in part because it is accidental, does not know the beholder and does not know any language with which we could try to describe it. The beauty of the achievement is the beauty of the invention: specially tailored to the viewer to evoke their words and feelings.
There’s a lot of beauty in “Dorian Gray” and even a little genius, but especially when it’s not caught by its own gaze.
The picture by Dorian Gray
Until March 31; barntheatre.org.uk