Photo credit: Fionn Whitehead in The Picture of Dorian Gray (Photo courtesy of The Picture of Dorian Gray)

'The Picture of Dorian Gray' is now a 21st century fable for the digital age

Sam Marlowe
Sam Marlowe

Who doesn't want to be young and beautiful forever? Oscar Wilde's 1891 novel is famous for its indelible central idea, of an ageless and exquisite young man and the hideous, ageing portrait that betrays his depraved secret nature. It's a vision that will never lose its potency as long as we remain looks-obsessed, which is probably why there have been numerous stage adaptations. Yet the book itself is a slog: an overwrought, purple profusion of self-conscious aphorism and ornate philosophical musings.

So this radical reworking by Henry Filloux-Bennett, whose version of Jonathan Coe's 'What a Carve-Up!' last year was a lockdown hit, is a seriously clever piece of work. The playwright plucks the lustrous pearl out of Wilde's chewy and indigestible oyster, and gives it an entirely new setting: the shiny world of social media. A 21st century fable for the digital age, it brings themes of illusion and reality, greed, power, lust and the seductive power of the image hurtling from Wilde's gothic imagination into our own tech world. And with its animation, online chat and Zoom conversations, Tamara Harvey's online production fits this limber retelling of the story like a silk glove.

It's apt, too, that a play about the pursuit of celebrity should have such a starry cast. Filloux-Bennett's narrative plays out episodically, and in flashback, as a television documentary is made about the mysterious death of Dorian Gray, a wildly popular and controversial influencer. Stephen Fry is the filmmaker gently interrogating Dorian's former friends; Dorian is played by a porcelain-perfect Fionn Whitehead ('Bandersnatch', 'Dunkirk'). Joanna Lumley, full of fruity wit, is Lady Narborough, the grande dame socialite getting her vicarious kicks from the young men's follies. Her foil is Alfred Enoch's snarky camp sybarite, Harry; and it is she, at a Covid-defying 21st birthday celebration that she throws for Dorian at a theatre, who engineers a romance between the birthday boy and and aspiring teenage actor Sibyl Vane (Emma McDonald).

As for the fatal painting, here it's replaced by a photo-editing filter, created by Basil Hallward (a slippery Russell Tovey), transformed from Wilde's dazzled portraitist into a married software engineer and amateur photographer oppressively fixated with Dorian. After downloading Basil's piece of technical wizardry, Dorian, a Eng Lit student stymied by the Covid restrictions, finds his fledgling vlogging career taking flight. The experimental filter bestows an angelic luminosity - and with it, a huge spike in followers. As he feeds obsessively off the attention, the tone of his posts darkens: conspiracy theories and far-right politics creep in, his IRL friends fall away and, off-camera, his features start to decay.

Grooming, trolling, catfishing, abuse and addiction are the poisons consumed in soul-corroding daily doses. That's a hefty amount of metaphor for the narrative's conceit to bear, and there are moments when you feel it cannot possibly hold together. At times, too, the mixture of Wildean wit and curlicue sits oddly alongside sweary modern vernacular and text talk. Yet as we're whisked through swipes, scrolls and pop-ups, we remain intrigued. And the writing is stuffed with sharp observation and prickly humour - "First rule of Insta," Dorian tells Lumley's eager Lady N tartly, "no one over 50. Stick to Facebook."

The performances are deft, and the designs, by Holly Pigott, create an impressively atmospheric sense of place, from Dorian's spartan student accommodation to Harry's velvet den and a glittering party. All in all, it's ingenious - a sinister cautionary tale that puts all of us, and our online habits, in the frame.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is available to stream to 17 April.

Photo credit: Fionn Whitehead in The Picture of Dorian Gray (Photo courtesy of The Picture of Dorian Gray)

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