The Picture of Dorian Gray review – the ugly face of social media | Theatre


If Dorian Gray were reborn in our age, it seems entirely fitting that he would be a social media star obsessing over his image. So it makes great intuitive sense for this adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s novel to situate its protagonist in the centre of the digital whirl of 2021.

There is now no physical painting: the deal made with Basil Hallward allows Dorian eternal youth and beauty online, but age marks him in the real world, his face becoming etched with the ugliness of his accumulating misdeeds (snorting coke, catfishing and late night hookups). The pandemic is incorporated into the drama and enhances the storyline as Dorian wears his mask to cover his ageing face.

The inversion is an intelligent way to bring new resonances to the Victorian notion of the split self in Wilde’s novel; here, the fracture is between the real versus the digital self rather than the Christian notion of the good and bad, even though Fionn Whitehead’s Dorian – guileless but a little too grounded to buy into the bargain with Basil (Russell Tovey) – sells his soul too quickly.

This production is created by the team behind the recent adaptation of Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up!, which was a highlight of the lockdown last year, and it contains some of the same ingenious techniques in reimagining theatre on screen. The effects are not quite as exhilarating, and the pace is slower, though the story is full of imagination. A co-production between five theatres (the Barn, Lawrence Batley, New Wolsey, Oxford Playhouse and Theatr Clwyd), the quality of the production is as slick and refined as a Netflix drama, and it feels much more straightforwardly like a film than theatre-on-film.

Steals the show … Alfred Enoch
Steals the show … Alfred Enoch

Written by Henry Filloux-Bennett and directed by Tamara Harvey, the narrative begins at the end of the original story, with Dorian already dead. It comes wrapped up in some of the same framing devices as the last show, with key characters retelling their version of events in a series of filmed interviews, alongside dramatised flashbacks, which gives the overall effect of a whodunnit. The central mystery here is why Dorian Gray, an English literature undergraduate and rising social media celebrity, should end his life in the way that he does.

Characters speak to each other on their laptops; quickfire exchanges of texts are typed out and social media messages are scrolled on our screens. Sibyl Vane (Emma McDonald), the doomed actor with whom Dorian becomes enamoured, is presented largely through her Instagram feed as she posts poems, Shakespearean soliloquies and the occasional Wilde aphorism. The gothic tones of the story are brought out through the visuals: Dorian looks ever more beautiful on his YouTube channel while growing more gaunt and haunted off-screen. It is all clever stuff, though the framing of the story sometimes gets in the way of its power.

The show teems with big names, including Stephen Fry as the interviewer and Joanna Lumley as Lady Narborough. But it is Alfred Enoch who steals the show as Henry Wotton, whose intimate friendship with Dorian brings the homosexual undertones of Wilde’s text to the surface. Dorian’s sexuality is openly unfixed here: he falls for Sibyl but has previously been on Grindr and flirts with both Henry and Basil. It makes for a thoroughly modern Dorian Gray, and its moral message – of a generation being sucked into a vortex of anxiety, self-obsession, shame and suicide though social media – chimes loudly.

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