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Influencers are some of the most obnoxious people, fashioning brands from self-indulgence. However, it feels like we’ve all lived most of the last year through social media: a place of news and trivia, celebration and criticism, self-congratulation and small acts of heroism, screaming into the void and wanting to be heard. This is the online world inhabited by this modern adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray from writer Henry Filloux-Bennett and director Tamara Harvey.
An opening flurry of tweets, posts and messages immerses us in this kaleidoscopic engine of voices and opinions — a kinetic, live, mutating organism that can swallow you up and spit you out. We’re told early on this is the fate of the titular Dorian, signifying the piece’s interest not in the reality that people fall victim to social scrutiny, but in how this happens. The plot is similar to Wilde’s novel, about a young man whose beauty attracts increasingly suffocating public interest and pressure, but is structured like a Netflix true-crime documentary. We learn details through interviews with Dorian’s friends who retrace his glory and downfall.
It convincingly parodies this genre with overcranked music and sensationalistic melodrama, but it’s a more televisual than theatrical form, even if the interviews suggest a loss of ownership over your own biography when it’s recounted for you. Identity becomes malleable public property, just as the characters referencing Oscar Wilde suggests the theft of ideas and thoughts. The backstory is told through intimate video calls with exposing close-ups that present their vulnerability, but the slow one-to-one conversations are drawn out and thinly meaningful.
Filloux-Bennett’s script does find compelling modern resonances, however. Instead of making a painting of Dorian, his friend Basil creates a filter — a contemporary metaphor for polished surface and deceptive artifice. At its most incisive, Dorian gives a speech about the connotations of ‘viral’ and how we structure our interactions in terms of disease transmission. Indeed, the first line “Should I be looking at the camera?” indicates the anxiety around performativity in the fabric of the piece.
Some of the performances are rather obvious, like a light Sunday night ITV drama that’s happy to do all the work for you. Joanna Lumley portrays Lady Narborough’s shallow, callous detachment but lacks all subtlety, so it’s hard to take her warnings against “the dark side of social media” seriously. More striking, Alfred Enoch plays Dorian’s friend Harry with the posh pretence of Jack Whitehall, his fluency breaking down as he tries to resist the pain of his loss with chasm-like pauses between his glib platitudes.
At the centre, Fionn Whitehead plays Dorian with callow humility, his timid, stuttering voice and bashful charm shying away from the camera. Less romping in vainglory and more quietly reflective, he withdraws inwards the more desperate he becomes to promote himself outwards. While this makes effective chemistry with Emma McDonald’s soft-spoken, elegantly enchanting Sybil, his reinterpretation of the character betrays any sense that he’d care about the loss of youth supposed to motivate his destructive vanity.
Instead, it’s more about being misled by impressionability, as Filloux-Bennett focuses on the mental toll of superficial aesthetic scrutiny on the isolation, loss and persecution of the self. However, this isn’t neatly compatible with the original, from antiquated names like Dorian, Basil and Sybil, to anachronistic modern slang like “It’s a complete mission.” It’s an odd hybrid and lacks the indelibility of the novel, but its tender, poignant and thought-provoking moments paint fresh details on Wilde’s classic story.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is available online until 31 March 2021. For more information and tickets, visit the production’s website.