Words: Simon Button
The gay subtext of Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray - about a beautiful young man who sells his soul in exchange for eternal youth - is brought to the fore in a new online production that brilliantly reinterprets the classic story for both the digital age and COVID-stricken world.
Stuck in student gigs, Fionn Whitehead's pretty and loveable Dorian is a wannabe social media star who falls for budding actress Sibyl Vane (Emma McDonald) but, unlike in the book, his other dalliances are with men - including Russell Tovey’s Basil Hallward, who is closeted and married, and Alfred Enoch’s Henry Wotton, an out cynic who is slyly disdainful of heteronormative values.
There’s no picture in the attic in this contemporary twist on Wilde’s tale. Instead, Basil offers Dorian a selfie filter that will preserve his beauty online - a clever conceit by writer Henry Filloux-Bennett, who drags Oscar’s only novel out of its original Victorian setting into present-day, pandemic-stricken England.
There are references to Grindr, hot messes, Jack Wills T-shirts and The Queen’s Gambit. And director Tamara Harvey, working under COVID-safety restrictions, uses various platforms to tell the story - from conventional cameras (placed at a safe distance, of course) to vlog posts via tweets, texts, Facetime chats and Zoom interviews.
All these various filming techniques make the co-production between five theatres feel vibrant, alive and very now, and they lend an intimacy you don’t often get in filmed shows - even if Joanna Lumley, as Lady Narborough, amusingly points out in the opening scene that the filmmakers agreed on no close-ups.
Lumley has a lot of fun as Dorian’s unofficial protector and matchmaker and Whitehead perfectly pulls off Dorian’s switch from naive thing of beauty to unravelling social commentator, whilst a playfully snide Enoch steals the show and Tovey, underserved at first, delivers a very moving speech about his worship for a man he can’t commit to.
As The Interviewer gently grilling the survivors of a tragedy I won’t detail for those who aren’t familiar with Wilde’s novel and its various stage, film and TV adaptations, Stephen Fry doesn’t get much screen time. Some of the tonal shifts are a bit jarring, such as when characters directly quote Wilde’s original text, and the script’s attacks on social media are sometimes too heavy-handed and lack satirical bite.
But this is very much a Dorian Gray for 2021 with one striking metaphor: Crusading against compulsory mask-wearing on his social channels and filtered to perfection, Dorian Gray is forced to cover his face in public because his increasingly ugly behaviour is rotting the very beauty he’s desperate to cling to.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is available to view until 31 March at pictureofdoriangray.com. Tickets cost £12.