• Catherine Flutsch

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Updated: Apr 1

★★★★

Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray, co-produced by The Oxford Playhouse, streaming from Tuesday 16 March until Wednesday 31 March 2021. Now extended to 17 April 2021. Tickets are £12 and available here:

[Disclosure: The Oxford Playhouse provided me with a ticket for the purposes of this review.]

While COVID19 has been devastating for the arts industry, it has also been the stimulus for extraordinary creativity. That creativity is on show with a new, online production of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. A number of theatre companies and venues have come together to co-produce this online offering, bringing together theatre’s elite to produce something very special.

The all-star cast includes Joanna Lumley, playing a simultaneously vulnerable and ruthless Lady Narborough, and Stephen Fry, as a genuine, understated interviewer. Tamara Harvey’s direction brings to life Henry Filloux-Bennett’s original version of this much loved story.

Wilde’s story focuses on a beautiful young man, Dorian Gray, who makes a deal to sell his soul to stay young and beautiful, while a picture of him ages and shows the true ugliness of his superficial nature.

Filloux-Bennett’s version is set in 2020 lockdown with Dorian, a university student, locked down in residential college making his first video blog on his newly set up YouTube channel. Filloux-Bennett gives Wilde’s story a clever twist, which I don’t want to ruin for you. The story is told in flashback – with Stephen Fry playing the interviewer who is filming a documentary about the events surrounding Dorian and his friends. The production is 1 hour and 34 minutes long and for the first hour, it is glorious and sparkling.

It is a remarkable feat to deliver a production that feels like theatre, through the filter of a screen, without using any of theatre’s traditional tools. The story is told through interview snippets, text messages, social media posts, CCTV camera footage and facetime conversations. Despite the myriad of different story telling techniques, it flows smoothly. In fact, it feels extraordinarily real, with the audience eavesdropping on intimate conversations between the Dorian and his friends. At some points I forgot that I was watching a pre-recorded show and started to think I was intruding on private conversations – a very uncomfortable feeling.

All the performances are understated and beautiful with particular kudos going to Emma McDonald, for an exquisite performance of Dorian's girlfriend, Sibyl Vane. Sibyl Vane’s glorious social media posts were something I could have watched as a production on their own. Brilliantly talented Alfred Enoch, as Dorian’s best friend, Harry Wotton, expertly brings together flair, swagger and vulnerability.

One point I would note is that the message, that social media is BAD, is made with a bit of subtlety lacking, which is surprising given the nuance of the rest of the production. Anybody familiar with social media knows, and in most cases, has experienced its negatives effects. That social media can be a destructive force for young (and indeed more experienced) minds is well and truly known. In the production, a huge amount of effort goes into showing that social media is at least partly to blame for things going tragically wrong – a conclusion that didn’t feel that shocking or surprising to me.

Another thing I found a little bit unrealistic was Dorian himself and his social media offering – this is not a comment on the acting - which is perfection - but the decision on how to present Dorian’s character. Dorian is presented as an ordinary, quite nice, uni student. Even before his deal with the devil, the other characters talk of his charming, mesmerising luminosity – but I just couldn’t see it. I really tried. I don’t want to give too much away, suffice to say that I had to suspend my disbelief until the production gets darker and Whitehead’s full skills begin to unfurl – only then I began to believe.

I also found it hard to believe that Dorian’s thousands of deadly serious selfies, posted on Instagram, without a hint of irony or humour would garner such a massive response from his Gen Z peers. By contrast, Sibyl Vane’s original, creative and genuine social media offerings seemed to fulfil everything required to draw the type of adoration that Dorian purportedly attracted. Although these details are minor – they do contribute to the central premise of the story – Dorian as a social media star – so to me they felt quite important.

While Fionn Whitehead did a wonderful job of showing Dorian’s decline, once the decline became evident – then the end also became obvious. Watching the inevitable end unfolding over half an hour felt long. Perhaps there is so much horror and sadness around us in real life that I didn’t feel the need to slowly track Dorian’s decline to the bitter end.

These are minor criticisms in the scheme of things and The Picture of Dorian Gray is an enchanting production, in which there is so much to admire and enjoy.

Square Stage