Mark Ludmon reviews the online adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray with Fionn Whitehead, Joanna Lumley, Alfred Enoch, Stephen Fry, Russell Tovey and Emma McDonald
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Barn Theatre, Cirencester; Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield; New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich; Oxford Playhouse; and Theatr Clwyd, Mold: online
Oscar Wilde’s classic tale of the corrupting effects of eternal youth and beauty has been cleverly updated for the age of Covid-19 in a new online production from a group of theatres. Lockdown, masks and social distancing feed into this new adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray but don’t despair – it is done intelligently and subtly to underpin a broader narrative about social media, the risks of needing “likes” and how misleading it is as a portrait of our real lives.
Set over the past year, the film follows handsome young university student Dorian – sequestered in his halls of residence by Covid rules – as he tries to make connections via YouTube vlogging and Instagram. His intense friendship with the dapper Harry, fuelled by flirtatious video calls, is threatened by a new admirer, Basil Hallward, who – instead of presenting him with a supernatural portrait as in the original novella – gives him a filter that will keep him luminously beautiful and young online forever. Nobody can guess at the depths of his depravity and cruelty, with only a curated, filtered representation online and a PPE mask to cover his face when outdoors.
Although filmed and edited into a pre-recorded film, it has been created by theatre-makers including writer Henry Bennett-Filloux and director Tamara Harvey and was mostly filmed in the Barn Theatre in Cirencester. It is framed as a mysterious producer, played by Stephen Fry, making a documentary, skilfully editing together interviews, found footage, video chats and social media. It explores how social media creates a seductive illusion of perfect lives and leads to users craving likes and followers instead of real-life friends and lovers.
Fionn Whitehead is quietly charming as Dorian, suggesting little of the cruelty and depravity behind the mask, while Alfred Enoch is excellent as the dilettante Harry, covering his vulnerability with a veneer of sophisticated urbanity. Emma McDonald is impressive as Sybil Vane, a young actor whose arrival disrupts Dorian’s relationships with his friends including Basil, played by Russell Tovey. Joanna Lumley completes the superb cast as Lady Narborough, a bewildered observer of the younger generation. Filmed under Covid restrictions, the characters’ physical distance from each other – chatting via camera phones, conversing by Messenger – fittingly emphasises the story’s themes, highlighting the social isolation that can lie behind social media.
Available to watch from 16 to 31 March 2021.