The Dorian Gray we see on social media is handsome, elegant and disturbing. He takes our breath away.
The Dorian Gray we see at home in his student house share deteriorates. His face becomes scarred and in the final scenes as blood trickles from his ears.
This may seem the reverse of what happens in Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel. There, the real Dorian remains young and grows more beautiful while his portrait ages. However, the two interpretations have something in common: the Dorian we see in public becomes more and more sophisticated and better looking.
The Dorian who stays at home sinks into despair and becomes physically weaker. It is all the more disturbing because Gray’s first YouTube post looks exactly like that of any other university student in their second year of reading English Literature.
The cast is in this digital performance is impressive: Fionn Whithead, Alfred Enoch, Joanna Lumley, Emma McDonald, Russell Tovey and Stephen Fry. These actors draw out our empathy. Whitehead convincingly handles the changes in Dorian. Enoch and Tovey offer us two intriguing but different friends and lovers in Harry Wooton and Basil Hallward.
Lumley is at once superior Lady Narborough and a caring friend, whilst Fry brings us an astute interviewer who helps to uncover the truth. McDonald makes us love Sibyl and mourn her death by suicide. This all follows some skilled writing by Henry Filoux-Bennett and directing from Tamara Harvey.
There are health warnings. The Octagon’s web site says that “The Picture of Dorian Gray includes extremely strong language and contains scenes of self-harm, suicide, death and mental illness which some viewers may find upsetting”. There is an indication at the end of the performance of where you can find organisations that can offer help if you have been affected by the performance.
Yes, it is disturbing, but also touching and extremely engaging.
The action skips seamlessly from scene to scene– Dorian and Sybils’ rooms, and Harry Basils and Lady Narboroughs’ homes. The interviewer is heard more than he is seen and seen only on screen. There is one scene in a theatre, with good social distancing, where Sybil dries up and Dorian therefore rejects her.
There are also many scenes on computer screens and mobile devices. This makes the show very 21st century and very much of the ‘Covid era’.
Those of us who love theatre can’t wait for them to open again. We all hope that they will be able to. Initiatives like this will undoubtedly go some way to ensuring that that happens.
This is an intriguing art form anyway and perhaps we can also hope that these sorts of performances can live side by side with more conventional theatre once we have the pandemic under control.
The 90-minute play is co-produced by the Barn Theatre, the Lawrence Batley Theatre, the New Wolsey Theatre, the Oxford Playhouse and Theatre Clwyd. You can find tickets here.
– Gill Wright