Tuesday, 16 March 2021

REVIEW: The Picture of Dorian Gray (Online)

The 12 months of Lockdown has forced the more inventive producers and directors to reinvent their creative processes to continue to reach their audiences who are unable to attend their favourite venues for a live performance. Five regional venues led by the team at The Barn Theatre in Cirencester have coproduced this modern reimagining of the Oscar Wilde story of The Picture of Dorian Gray in conjunction with nineteen regional partner venues to promote to their audiences’ bases. The resulting ninety-five-minute film is an extraordinary disturbing modern retelling of the story of obsessive desire for beauty and sensual fulfilment. 

Henry Filloux-Bennett, the artistic director of the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield, has written the production taking the core characters from the original book and placing them in the social media world on 2020/21. Dorian Gray becomes a second-year university student Vlogger obsessively trying to build subscribers. The artist Basil Hallward becomes a married developer and part-time photographer, usually represented as an avatar on a youtube channel, acting as a social media avenger discussing anxiety, stress and depression. Lord Henry Wotton becomes the self-obsessed Harry being interviewed and reflecting on his relationship with Dorian. The actress Sibyl Vane becomes an eighteen-year-old actress creating Shakespearean videos for her @sibvane2000 channel. When she gets a big break to appear with RSC stars on stage, she dries mid-speech with dramatic consequences. 
FIlloux-Bennett cleverly structures the play around two reflective interviews by Stephen Fry looking back on these events, one with Harry Wotton and the other with Lady Narborough who organised a 21st birthday party for Dorian which became the catalyst for the events that followed. Stephen Fry and Joanna Lumley, as Lady Narborough, give the production a classy feel in relatively straightforward and static roles but it is the young cast, wonderful cinematic capture and the evocative quietly threatening underscore that elevates the piece into a gripping modern gothic horror story. Everything is seen through the ubiquitous cameras of modern life. We see them setting up the interview’s cameras, we see them through CCTV footage, through the filter of a mobile phone and on their laptops. It makes a virtue of the recording techniques with overlays of text messages and the way the images are framed.

Fionn Whitehead is the quietly spoken Vlogger Dorian portraying the perfect online image with a false sincerity in sharp contrast with his gradually deteriorating mental health and physical appearance of his self-centred reality. Emma Macdonald is the beautiful talented Sibyl tragically affected by mocking laughter and trolling. Russell Tovey is the mysterious Basil who we rarely glimpse but is instrumental in the horrific downward spiral. Alfred Enoch is the well-spoken Harry who despite his close relationship with Dorian takes no responsibility for the outcomes of their interactions. Together this excellent cast weave their spell and you hardly notice or object to the fact that due to filming restrictions they are never in the same room together. 

These characters are wonderfully woven together by director Tamara Harvey (artistic director of Theatr Clywd), Director of Photography & editor Benjamin Collins (Barn Theatre Media director) and Sound Editor/original music creator, Harry Smith (Barn Theatre) to create a compelling disturbing warning about the impact of social media on the mental health of those obsessed by it and the amplifying effect of lockdown on those engaged in it. It feels incredibly relevant and up to date with its references about fake news and conspiracy theories fuelled by the dark side of social media while staying true to Oscar Wilde's story. Indeed, 130 years after he wrote this, his only novel, if he were alive, I am sure Wilde would be tweeting some witty quote from his book like “it is a sad thing to think of, but there is no doubt that genius lasts longer than beauty” as the current obsession with digital perceptions as opposed to factual realities, focus us all on how it looks and feels through a digital prism and not how it really is through factual analysis. 

A must-see creative production that you can watch as often as you want over a 48-hour window and perhaps a collaboration between producers and partner venues that will deliver exciting new productions for these places when they reopen later this year and into the future. To restart regional theatre effectively and economically is going to require these shared projects to harness collective skills and create theatrical experiences that are shared over multiple venues. I hope this is one of many such collaborations. 

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★★★

Seat: Online, until the 31st March | Price of Ticket: £12
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