Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Fionn Whitehead as Dorian Gray

RATING: ★★★★★

What would you give for the perfect social media presence? The creative team of What a Carve Up! have returned with a fantastic new version of The Picture of Dorian Gray that reimagines Oscar Wilde's only novel for the modern world. Co-produced by the Barn Theatre, the Lawrence Batley Theatre, the New Wolsey Theatre, the Oxford Playhouse, and the Theatr Clwyd, the show situates Dorian Gray as an influencer whose friend has given him a filter to ensure his perfect online appearance will never falter. 

The show, perhaps more film than theatre, is staged as a documentary of sorts looking back on the events preceding Dorian's death. We see interviews being filmed with Dorian's friends who made it out of the story alive, interspersed with clips of the events as they happened. But we also are witness to the Snapchats, texts, and FaceTime calls shared between the characters. Tamara Harvey's expert direction brings it all together while Holly Pigott's costume and set design elevate the piece to feel like a proper production. 

The Picture of Dorian Gray is admittedly one of the few Oscar Wilde works that I haven't read, but from what I know of it, Henry Filloux-Bennett's adaptation is excellent. The story opens with interviews with the Lady Narborough (Joanna Lumley) and social media influencer Harry Wotton (Alfred Enoch) looking back on Dorian's downfall. We first meet Dorian (Fionn Whitehead) as an English student and wannabe YouTuber. He's cute and mild-mannered, but there's the hint of something sinister underneath. 

Alfred Enoch as Harry 

His friend Basil (Russell Tovey), a software developer, is essentially obsessed with the much younger Dorian. Both Basil and Harry seem to fight for Dorian's affections; this production is able to make its gay relationships much more explicit than the novel it's based on. On his 21st birthday, Basil presents Dorian with a filter that will preserve his youth and beauty online. And for a while, things seem perfect. 

Dorian falls hard and fast for Sibyl Vane (Emma McDonald), an aspiring actress who is building a following on TikTok doing scenes from plays and poems. But as he becomes more obsessed with social media, we begin to see a difference in his online and offline appearance. In a twist on the original story in which Dorian's portrait becomes grotesque while his actual appearance remains immaculate, Dorian's online presence remains practically glowing while his body grows uglier with impressive makeup work. And as his obsession with his online image grows, so does his cruelty. 

Whitehead is excellent as Dorian, capturing both his endearing boyishness in the beginning and his absolute callousness later. McDonald shines as Sibyl, with a simple charm that contrasts well with Dorian's more calculated nature. It's fun to see Stephen Fry as the interviewer, asking Harry and Lady Narborough about their deceased friend. 

Emma McDonald as Sibyl

But the true standout of the cast is Enoch from the moment he first appears with a mustache and floral blazer, lounging on a maroon sofa. It's unlike any character I've ever seen him play before; he's suave and debonair, though underneath it there's a true affection for Dorian that makes the events that unfold even more devastating. 

The show feels remarkably up to date for 2021 from its references to Twitch and Patreon to "The Queen's Gambit" to Dorian's reminders to wear a mask. Setting the piece during quarantine cleverly explains away why the interviews are happening via a computer, allowing it to be made with less people together at a time. It's also a bit cheeky and self-aware. It mentions Oscar Wilde and "that one good" National Theatre Live show with Tom Hiddleston, an obvious reference to Coriolanus, which Enoch was in. 

But it also takes its exploration of the dangers of social media further than the surface level ideas about vanity. Because while social media does lead some to be obsessed with their image, the very existence of this adaptation proves that that issue is nothing new. It delves into right-wing conspiracy theories about Covid and the government and a movement of Aesthetics over Ethics that Dorian leads. As an American who is more and more concerned with the right-wing theorizing online and how it can led into things like the Capitol riot, these themes strongly resonated with me. 

This show contains mature language and themes, including drugs, sex, mental illness, and suicide. It's not an easy watch, but it's captivating in the same way that a sinking ship is. The Picture of Dorian Gray is an excellent reimagining of Oscar Wilde's enduring novel about obsession and image, updated for 2021, and just as chilling as its original version. 

You can find more information and buy tickets on the Picture of Dorian Gray website.  The show runs until March 31. 

I was given a press ticket to this show for the purposes of review, but all opinions are my own. 

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