In the year since theatre buildings were forced to closed their doors to audiences, the Barn Theatre in Cirencester has tirelessly been putting out new and exciting digital work. On the anniversary of the closure announcement, they released their latest digital co-production with Lawrence Batley Theatre, New Wolsey Theatre, Oxford Playhouse and Theatr Clwyd. From the creative team behind What a Carve Up!, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a lockdown-inspired, 21st century take on the Oscar Wilde classic which sees the narcissistic Victorian protagonist become a modern day social media star.
A cautionary tale about the dark side of social media, it’s a compelling production which is in some places quite difficult to watch. The cleverness of the concept is probably best appreciated by those with some knowledge of the original storyline which sees Dorian Gray sell his soul in return for eternal beauty as he sits for a portrait. While Wilde’s Dorian stays beautiful in the flesh as his portrait withers with every sin he commits, Henry Filloux-Bennett’s Dorian (Fionn Whitehead) is more concerned about preserving the only version of himself that matters in a social-media obsessed world. Selling his soul for a filter, he presents a perfect online image that conceals his true physical and mental decline.
In this new world of digital productions, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly where the boundary lies between a filmed play and a film. Like its predecessor production, The Picture of Dorian Gray sits somewhere close to that boundary. It’s not theatre as you know it but it’s definitely theatrical in style and has plenty of nods to live theatre within it. Using a similar device to What a Carve Up!, much of the story is recalled via after the event interviews, allowing plenty of exposition from Joanna Lumley’s Lady Narborough and Alfred Enoch’s hedonistic Harry Wotton as they are quizzed about the life of the infamous Dorian Gray by Stephen Fry’s rarely seen on-screen interviewer.
Brilliantly directed by Tamara Harvey, it uses Covid filming restrictions to its advantage, giving us a real sense of the irony that the isolation of lockdown is the catalyst for Gray’s obsession with popularity, yet he becomes increasingly disconnected from people as his online star soars. With the interactions between characters almost always taking place via screen, it could feel disjointed, but the slick filming and video effects from Benjamin Collins make for a very impressive production. One thing that does feel a little jarring is the speed with which Dorian declares his desire to preserve his online image at all costs. It might have been more convincing had this element of the plot occurred when he had already hit the height of his fame, rather than in the early stages of a hobby vlog that seemed to be born out of boredom. The incorporation of a Covid conspiracy narrative is also a little heavy handed.
Although the contemporary storyline feels slightly stretched in places, the real strength of this production is in the dark portrayals of Dorian’s doomed relationships with actor Sibyl Vane and software developer Basil Hallward (Russell Tovey). Dorian’s narcissistic approach to Sibyl freezing on stage is perhaps the standout scene of the production. It’s really quite uncomfortable viewing yet you can’t quite take your eyes off the screen. Meanwhile, the more we hear of Basil’s long-lived infatuation with Dorian, the more sinister the relationship begins to sound.
Overall, it’s an ambitious production which perhaps tries to take on one too many themes but brings it back to the core message with an apt quotation about beauty not from Oscar Wilde but Roald Dahl. Another gripping piece of digital work from this innovative creative team which we very much enjoyed. This digital Dorian Gray won’t be around forever though, so make sure you grab your ticket before his social star fades for good.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is available to watch online from 16 to 31 March 2021 Audience members receive a screening link which will activate on their booked performance date for a 48-hour period. Tickets are priced at £12 which includes both a link to the production as well as a digital programme. Closed captioning is available for all dates during the run, with audio description available from 23-31 March.
We received a complimentary press link in return for a review.
Age recommendation: 16+