Review: A Selfie’s in the Picture for This ‘Dorian Gray’

Of the Olympus-style pantheon of dead writers toasting with whiskey and Benzedrine in the heavens, Oscar Wilde , I’m willing to bet, wou...


Of the Olympus-style pantheon of dead writers toasting with whiskey and Benzedrine in the heavens, Oscar Wilde, I’m willing to bet, would have the most Insta followers. C’mon, the guy had style.

That’s why a dark new social media-themed adaptation of Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” feels like a raffish sibling to the 1890 novel. That is, when it doesn’t get too absorbed in its slick production techniques and moralism, a sticking point for those familiar with Wilde’s satirical eye, which was more about poking fun than proselytizing.

In the original, the beautiful, innocent young title character is the subject of a painting by his friend Basil. Wishing that his youth could be preserved as it is in the portrait, Dorian is corrupted by a charismatic hedonist named Lord Henry Wotton. As he grows more cruel, his portrait changes to reflect the ugliness of his thoughts and actions. Dorian remains beautiful but tortured by guilt and self-disgust.

The modern-day adaptation, a five-theater coproduction written by Henry Filloux-Bennett and directed by Tamara Harvey, makes Dorian (a winsome — and, yes, effortlessly handsome — Fionn Whitehead) a meek university English major who quickly erupts into a social media star.

The piece is framed as a documentary, set in a world online and isolated by the pandemic, about the character’s rise and fall. Stephen Fry, underused as the film’s interviewer, asks Dorian’s friend and admirer, Lady Narborough (Joanna Lumley), for her account of what happened.

But they aren’t in the same room. She speaks to Fry via a laptop screen, one of the myriad technologies — FaceTime, security cameras, YouTube videos and text messages — through which we view the action. It gives the story an unsettling sense of voyeurism.

Her account begins with Dorian’s 21st birthday, when his friend Basil (Russell Tovey, present only as a face and a voice) gifts him not a painting but software that captures his image — via pictures and videos — at his youngest and most beautiful. Our Narcissus becomes enamored with the software, and also falls for a young actress, Sibyl Vane (Emma McDonald), whom he eventually rejects when she can’t match the ideal of perfection he holds in his head.

All the while Basil and his libertine friend Harry Wotton (a dandified Alfred Enoch, positively sluiced with seductive charm) helicopter around Dorian — enamored, protective and possessive of him all at once.

Wilde’s figures translate seamlessly to the world of bitmojis and social media chatter. But the language shimmers most when it pivots between “lol” textspeak and the grandiloquent pronouncements that recall the Romantics. This Dorian quickly goes from firing off a quick expletive to relaxing into the ornate poetry of a desperate request: “Sear me with all the lines of suffering and thought you want. Sallow my skin. Dull my eyes. … let me keep all the delicate bloom and loveliness of youth that this magic gives me.”

This is all accentuated by the polished quality of the production itself, which mesmerizes like a Twitter scroll, thanks to Ben Evans’ digital imaging and Holly Pigott’s set and costume designs, a combination of modern and Victorian clever enough to intrigue the most fashion-forward Insta user.

But also like a Twitter timeline, the glut of information can be overwhelming: the nested viewing experience of watching videos within videos and screens within screens effectively enacts our digitally driven pandemic lives, but before too long the production feels overwrought.

It also presents the question: Does this show, though co-produced by the Barn, Lawrence Batley Theater, the New Wolsey Theater, the Oxford Playhouse and Theatr Clwyd, still count as theater? (It’s a question my colleague Alexis Soloski also asked of the last team-up of many of these theaters, “What a Carve Up!”) The reliance on these slick production techniques with prerecorded, thoroughly edited performances would suggest no, not so much.

I won’t quibble over the medium, especially when the pandemic has smudged the line between theater and film, but I will dispute this adaptation’s moral shift. In Wilde’s novel characters die as direct or indirect victims of pride, or ego; here social media, and cyberbullying in particular, is the culprit.

That’s fair, but “Dorian Gray” — with its awkward coronavirus references and warnings of the prevalence of fake news, Dorian’s spiral into conspiracy theories and Basil’s YouTube video on mental health — too often tiptoes into didacticism.

It’s the central relationships — everyone attracted to Dorian, his toying with their affections — that build up the most alluring drama, of how beauty and innocence can be perverted by the world and even wielded as weapons. I would have liked, for example, to see more of Harry’s complicated bond with Dorian and Dorian’s messy codependency with Basil, who, in this version, is older, predatory and closeted. The fascinating nuances of that sexual, emotional and power dynamic get short shrift.

“Beauty is a form of genius,” Wilde memorably wrote in the novel. He wasn’t talking about theater, but he could have been. The beauty we encounter in nature is exquisite in part because it is incidental, oblivious to the looker, oblivious to any language we may try to use to describe it. The beauty of performance is the beauty of contrivance: tailored specifically to the looker, meant to elicit their words and feeling.

There’s plenty of beauty, and even a little genius, in “Dorian Gray,” but most of all when it doesn’t get trapped by its own gaze.

The Picture of Dorian Gray
Through March 31; barntheatre.org.uk

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