Until Sat 17 Apr 21
TheLBTHuddersfield (Tickets from https://www.pictureofdoriangray.com/)
‘I think the most exciting element for me is that you have to find a reason for the story to exist in that medium…why tell that story now? The wrangling with, and answering of that question, is the most exciting bit for me.’
So says Henry Filloux-Bennett, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield, and writer of a new adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Created in collaboration with The Barn Theatre, The New Wolsey Theatre, Oxford Playhouse and Theatr Clywd, this insightful adaptation brings Wilde’s classic tale of beauty and corruption into the modern age.
Dorian Gray, a would-be internet ‘influencer’, sells his soul – perhaps figuratively, perhaps literally – for an experimental photo filter which will keep his online persona eternally young and perfect. At once, Filloux-Bennett and director Tamara Harvey’s interest in retelling this story becomes clear. One can only guess at the biting wit Wilde might have imparted regarding the modern world’s seeming obsession with personal brands, para-social relationships and the drive to ‘sell’ an image of oneself on social media. A digital age of political radicalisation, misinformation and ever-eroding privacy. Wilde’s cast of socialites, artists and actors are all convincingly swapped for online content creators, each chasing their fifteen minutes of viral fame. The dialogue is a clever mix of grandiose and modern day language, preserving the wit of Wilde’s writing in a way that never feels awkward or forced, thanks to the confident and fluid delivery of the talented cast.
Never does the show stray into becoming a trite or cliched affair about the horrors of social media. Part of this is achieved via the inclusion of Basil Hallward’s YouTube channel. The painter has been reimagined as a software engineer, and as he begins to fret over Dorian’s wellbeing, viewers are treated to clips from his videos warning about the unseen dangers of the online world. These videos, while truthful, are didactic and ham-fisted, giving the production a chance to lightly satirise itself.
Of course, producing theatre in 2021 comes with its own particularly unique challenges. Dorian is distributed as a pre-recorded production, filmed in multiple locations. Quarantine regulations required keeping people on set to a minimum, and so much of Dorian consists of characters filmed alone, often speaking to each other only online. In fact, the existence of the pandemic is acknowledged within the plot. Shots from webcams, phones and lurking Echo-esque devices of lone individuals all help to demonstrate the claustrophobic yet isolating panopticon of social media the characters are subjecting themselves to. It also gives some of the filming a faux-amateurish, “found footage” feel. This fits perfectly with the conceit of the production: we are watching a documentary created after Dorian’s death. This framing adds an extra layer of artifice to this story of ‘aesthetics over ethics’.
Stephen Fry’s cameo as the interviewer for this documentary is a genius nod towards his portrayal of Wilde himself in Gilbert’s titular 1997 film. His first interviewee, Joanna Lumley, makes for a wonderfully conceited but layered Lady Narborough. She is pitted hilariously against the second interviewee; Alfred Enoch dazzles throughout as the brazenly ostentatious Harry Wotton, as any version of Lord Henry should. At the same time his genuine affection for Dorian, beneath his posturing, shines through in the performance, and is explored with sympathetic pathos.
Equally captivating is Emma McDonald’s Sybil Vane, aspiring actress and doomed TikTok star. Russell Tovey rounds out the cast with a stalwart Basil, whose devotion to Dorian is given a more insidious tone as the play reckons with the 19-year age gap between the two. Fionn Whitehead stars as Dorian Gray himself. As Dorian’s soul – or perhaps, simply, his mental health – deteriorates, Whitehead effortlessly makes the transition from endearing to sinister.
Filloux-Bennett can rest assured this adaptation easily answers the question of ‘why that story now?’. It effortlessly translates Wilde’s cast and themes into a chilling tale of modern day obsession and corruption.