One thing we’ve learnt through this pandemic is that “Zoom theatre” is gawdawful. And while previously recorded theatre productions (like London’s brilliant National Theatre Live) have gone some way to filling the gap, new productions have been rare and of vastly varying quality. Which is why this production of The Picture of Dorian Gray is so exciting – it’s bloody good!
Oscar Wilde’s classic novel of vice and retribution has been reworked into a modern day tale of digital dangers in the time of Covid. The cast, a brilliant line up of talent—Russell Tovey, Joanna Lumley, Fionn Whitehead, Alfred Enoch, Stephen Fry, and Emma McDonald—give us this familiar story in the form of a documentary, blending talking head interviews with video calls, and YouTube-style videos.
Fionn Whitehead brings a gangly, British charm to the young Dorian (not unlike his performance in Bandersnatch) who is gifted with a perfect, charismatic digital avatar; on screen he is flawless and magnetic, in person he is decomposing in isolation, hiding behind face masks. He captures the awkwardness of a 20-something white guy online and his virtual fame feeds his insecurities. His videos of “aesthetics over ethics” slowly take on a more manipulative, conspiratorial bent as they go, reminiscent of the fate of many über-popular YouTubers like Logan Paul and PewDiePie.
Writer Henry Filloux-Bennett and director Tamara Harvey have crafted a new story onto to the bones of the old, speaking to the dangers of our technological age, not just Instagram and Snapchat with their VR filters and tricks, but also the threat of YouTube extremism.
Ironically, it’s technology that makes this whole endeavour work so well. The documentary conceit justifies the solitary interviews, while video-calls allow for more intimate interactions. Set during the Covid lockdown, it feels completely natural for relationships to be playing out on screens. Scenes set at parties and at the theatre are pulled off with some fine editing and cinematography by Benjamin Collins. It’s working around these limitations that make it feel more like theatre and less like film.
The real star of the show here is Alfred Enoch, giving his most relaxed and lascivious performance to date as Harry Wotton, complete with mustache, casually undone dressing-gown, and his tongue lodged firmly in his (and presumably other people’s) cheeks. There is something nicely meta about the casting of art-lover Russell Tovey as Basil Hallward, in this incarnation he is an artist and software engineer. Joanna Lumley’s innate sensuality gives Lady Narborough a seductive and possibly self-deluding edge.
This production is not only entertaining in a way so much streaming theatre hasn’t been, it’s also a triumph of smaller arts organisations spread around England and Wales working together (it’s a co-production between Theatr Clwyd, Barn Theatre, Oxford Playhouse, the New Wolsey Theatre and Lawrence Batley Theatre, along with more than a dozen other partner venues). May this democratisation of theatre continue long after this pandemic has ended.
By Chad Armstrong
You can stream The Picture of Dorian Gray from anywhere in the world from March 16th until March 31st 2021 by heading to the official website. Ticket buyers will be given a 48hr window in which to watch the show.
The production is suitable for those 16+. Content warning: The Picture of Dorian Gray includes extremely strong language and references to suicide and mental illness that some viewers may find upsetting. If you have been affected by any of the issues in The Picture of Dorian Gray click here for information on organisations that may be able to offer additional support.