There is a reason that the name and plot of some texts are simply etched into our mind.
Over the years, certain pieces of prose have become part of our psyche. They are our cautionary tales, the purveyors of societal ethics and the warnings that times change but human behaviour and attitudes, unfortunately, rarely do.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of those holy texts. Scribed in 1890 by the English Literature student’s favourite, Oscar Wilde, the gothic novel follows the story of a young gentleman who has his youth and charisma immortalised in a painting, at the expense of his soul. The Barn Theatre leads a five-theatre co-production of the novel, bought into modern day – global pandemic and all.
Henry Filloux-Bennett’s script uses social platforms as his playground, telling the story through archived video call footage, CCTV, scrolls of IMs, YouTube videos and TikToks.
Tamara Harvey’s direction teamed with cinematography and editing by Benjamin Collins locks a viewer into the digital world in which the characters are trapped.
As a result, this is not so much a theatrical production but a TV drama and manages to be held to the same esteem.
In this version, a slightly gawky but endearing Dorian Gray (Fionn Whitehead) starts a YouTube based book club to connect with his fellow English students as his university goes into lockdown. At the same time, he maintains a flirtatious relationship with a wonderfully charismatic and fantastically English middle class, Harry Wotton (Alfred Enoch) and an untoward, unexplained friendship with older Software Developer, Basil (Russell Tovey).
The trio never appear in shot together, none of the cast do, playing credit to the hardship of filming with social distancing guidelines. However, their relationships are eerily familiar to what we have become accustomed to.
Joanna Lumley’s performance is absolutely stellar. Her Lady Narborough is wistfully naïve, woefully self-obsessed and confuses admiration with obsession when it comes to Dorian Gray.
It is at her fundraiser – not a party, she insists – that Dorian is gifted an app from Basil that allows him to eternalise the youth he possesses on his 21st birthday, when in front of a camera. On this very evening, Dorian falls for performer, Sibyl Vane (Emma McDonald); a figure of innocent, natural beauty, an artist at work on TikTok filming a sonnet a day and a lustful poet.
The clever script is littered with Victorian monologues received as satire alongside pop culture references of The Queen’s Gambit and the quick death of House Party in April 2020. Perhaps most enjoyed are the quiet winks to the theatre world, poking fun at the very format of irony watching a digital theatre production and the value of modern art.
As the production progresses, it becomes more of a to-the-bone documentary of social consciousness from living in the UK’s 2020 lockdown.
Dorian – with his follower influence climbing daily - begins to dissect conspiracy theories, Sybil makes TikTok musicals, Lady Narborough becomes the older relative who strays from Facebook to be with the kids, and Basil’s bitmoji starts to create wellbeing videos. Basil represents our digital footprint; mostly faceless, he reveals nothing about himself yet knows everything about Dorian. He is a master of persuasion, influencing choices and decision.
Stephen Fry – criminally underused as The Interviewer – probes the characters to discuss the series of events that follow. When Sybil becomes a victim of viral humility, Dorian cruelly snipes that she cannot live to his level of perfection and by association he is embarrassed.
The last we see of her is a recorded suicide note. In the era of “be kind”, the production pays tribute to the lost potential of rising stars that are taken too soon, with the right dose of corrupt irony with regards to preventable tragedy.
Increasingly, more of the production becomes menacingly sliced edits of social feeds rather than real conversation and connection between the characters as they begin to cash in on the currency of social media: power and control.
Consequently, the characters and story unfortunately begin to lose lacklustre towards the final third. The drama crashes and spirals, but in a way that leaves us cruelly only seeing a meek glimpse and losing the emotional attachment.
As Dorian reaches his inevitable demise in an insidious ending probed by blackmail and loss of self identity, there is consequence for all involved.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is a stark wake-up call for those under the influence of influencers.
It is a bold, intelligent, and powerful story of tragedy following seduction from social media stardom.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is available to stream until 31 March. Tickets, here.