Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray (Barn Theatre)

Oscar Wilde’s only full-length novel was published in 1890. The Picture of Dorian Gray concerned a vain young man who kept the outward appearance of youth throughout his life, no matter what dreadful thoughts he had or what he did.

In his attic a portrait bears the hallmarks of his cruelty, debauchery, and immorality. The novel has been adapted many times for stage and screen, and attempts have been made to make it more contemporary, and to even experiment with a female Dorian.

Now, Henry Filloux-Bennett’s adaptation brings the story into the world of social media, lockdown, and student mental health. He has stripped down Wilde’s characters to just “four friends”: Dorian (Fionn Whitehead), Henry Wotton (Alfred Enoch), Sybil Vane (Emma McDonald), and Basil Hallward (Russell Tovey). The action begins at Dorian’s 21st birthday party.

Fionn Whitehead as Dorian Gray

There are also two new faces, played by the biggest names in the cast: one Lady Narborough, promoted from a minor character in the book (Joanna Lumley), and an interviewer (Stephen Fry). As the story unfolds in the form of an investigative documentary, with flashbacks and social media posts, Fry’s presence can be justified, but Lumley’s scenes seem a little irrelevant at times, despite being well-performed. There is much potential to explore with an older woman in a technical space, but other than one amusing moment, we don’t get there.

Dorian is now a media influencer, chasing likes, followers and fame. Although everyone creating content on the internet seeks an audience, this play hints at it being a young person’s game (Instagram – “no one over fifty”). When software developer Basil invents a filter that will make Dorian’s image remain the same forever, he accepts the gift, and the parallels with Wilde’s story begin.

This is very much Whitehead’s show, as he carries the bulk of the scenes. He’s very good at both vanity and vulnerability, making Dorian less monster, more just a boy looking for acceptance from his peers. Dorian’s real disintegration is presented in horrific terms, particularly following his cruel treatment of naive Instagram performer Sibyl. Relative newcomer McDonald makes her brief screentime count as she crafts a truly tragic figure for modern times.

Alfred Enoch as Henry Wotton

Directed by Tamara Harvey, this production boasts imaginative design by Holly Pigott and a cinematic feel of time and space by director of photography Benjamin Collins. Each space, whether physical or virtual, feels right, and you quickly forget that most conversations are based on Zoom calls or YouTube broadcasts. There are also cheeky nods to other lockdown shows if you look hard enough.

There are moments that could be explored more. With Henry less of a antagonist (as in the novel), and more disinterested observer, his role is somewhat diminished, other than an emotional reaction to Sybil’s final video. Enoch’s acting hints at hidden depths and anxieties, but they are not quite teased out.

Tovey’s Basil is also something of a mystery, a loner behind a keyboard with an unrequited crush. In this adaptation he is the one with a wife, rather than Henry; and he takes photographs rather than painting portraits. I missed the trajectory of this character’s pathetic downfall, but appreciated the clever switch of his “curse”.

Fionn Whitehead as Dorian Gray

This Dorian Gray is deeply ambitious and brilliantly put together, a modern horror thriller that may not be as Wilde intended, but which brings something new to the tale. I loved the implication of a masked Dorian going about his business, and the references to the plight of theatres. In this world of fake news, FOMO, and cyberbullying, there is much to explore, and this production dives right in.

You can watch The Picture of Dorian Gray from the 16-31 March. It is a co-production of Barn Theatre in Cirencester, New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich, Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield, Oxford Playhouse, and Theatr Clwyd. Purchase tickets here.

Image credit: Barn Theatre

LouReviews received complimentary access to review The Picture of Dorian Gray.

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