The Picture of Dorian Gray – Barn Theatre

Written by Henry Filloux-Bennett 

Directed by Tamara Harvey

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Influencer. Just what the hell does that even mean? A social shaman of trends, a digital messiah, or a hollow figurehead on which we cast our self-doubts and desires? By no means a new title, merely now with more lucrative advertising deals, it is (despite lampooning) an established career choice. And similar to the luvvies and bohemians of their time, an enviable stance for others to glare at, so naturally the story of the man who never ages, the Faustian fool who traded his soul for everlasting youth, is a prime target to reinterpret the story for a digital age where appearance is everything.

One of western culture’s classic novels, Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray isyet to lose its edge in lacerating the social dynamics of the time. The obsessive anxieties and pressures of image and extraordinary lengths taken to maintain appearance are perhaps more persistent and certainly more visible than ever before. Nip, tuck, touch-up, smooth and doctor, the act of graffitiing one’s natural visage is a commonplace tactic, rebuffed with Benjamin Collin’s editing and cinematography, which at times alters the tone and dynamics to reveal what lurks beneath.

Beauty is sublime but dangerous. Riding on its coattails through life can create luxury for some, misery for many others. And, of course, at the heart of any adaptation of Dorian Gray is not the damage he does to himself, but the collateral fallout from the indulgence of hedonism and vainglory. There are naturally remnants of the novel’s original themes, abstract ideologies which cannot go ignored. Queer-coding, a libertine lifestyle, and the scintillating swim into a sensationalist way of viewing the world define the essence of what makes Wilde’s story a triumph of raw gothic and philosophical literature.

Stringing together the original story, reconstructed for a social media-frenzied era, Filloux-Bennett’s re-imagining stitches iconic scenes with the foundations of a documentary style of filmmaking with interviews, visual cuts and framing to piece together the story of internet sensation Dorian Gray. At the root of discovery, interviewing the friends and supporters of Gray is the ever-charismatic Stephen Fry, who unsurprisingly conjures enough intrigue surrounding the events to tantalise the audience.

But rather than chasing opioids, the contemporary social drug is clicks, those likes and loves and shares and subscribers and vacuous necessities. The name of the game is social media, and it’s the most addictive and corrosive drug of all. Deceptive, Fionn Whitehead’s Dorian comes across as a touch too vanilla, but this all lays the bait for a more manipulative, dangerous Gray than many predecessors. It heightens the corruptive impact as Whitehead’s Gray descends from meekish blogger into a narcissistic sociopath, spreading the verbal defecations of false-news and right-wing propaganda. His distortions, less age-centric and more the sallow sunken eyes of stress, malnourishment, and screen burn are all magnificently captured with Grace-Marie Arena’s make-up.

Without question, the candles burning brightest throughout Dorian Gray are Alfred Enoch and Joanna Lumley. Perhaps more integral to the arching narrative, Gray’s friend, partner and lover Harry Wotton lights the hedonistic path for the young man, and Enoch revels in the debauchery. Treading a thinly cut line of exaggeration and melancholy, his interactions with Whitehead convey an authentic, if unhealthy, relationship. And unquestionably relating to her experience with photography, Lumley demonstrates an understanding of the adaptation at its core level, the troubling fear rising for generations for whose appearance is hammered into them from their screens hourly.

Extra points for the synergy of marrying digital theatre with social platforms, and a quick search on the infamous timewaster TikTok reveals a series of short clips performed by Emma McDonald, and which solidifies the sentimentality of Sybil Vane. McDonald’s epitaph, her final ‘note’ as Vane exits the story in a moment of sobering clarity, is a slap to strip the grandeur and hilarity as we come to grips with the severity of cyberbullying, abusive men, and rejections of mental health.

Trademarking a brand, The Picture of Dorian Gray benefits tremendously from its contemporary framing. Visually, the cinematography and infusion of graphics to insert sexualised messages and cyberstalking enhance the pace without sacrificing character development. With his mantra of #AestheticsOverEthics, at a primitive and repugnant level, Henry Filloux-Bennett has crafted a Gray more genuine than any spectre in the attic.

Runs here until 31 March 2021

Review published for The Reviews Hub


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