TW: Discussion of suicide and mental health.
Finally, a new play! And even more excitingly, a really brilliant one too. After the success of What a Carve Up!, the great brains of director Tamara Harvey and writer Henry Filloux-Bennett have come together again for a fully modernised digital theatre production of Oscar Wilde’s only published novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
For any of you who aren’t familiar with Wilde’s novel, it tells of the charismatic young man Dorian Gray (Fionn Whitehead) who, after being painted by his adoring friend Basil (Russell Tovey), becomes increasingly terrified by the fleetingness of his youth and beauty. Under the hedonistic influence of the morally suspect Lord Henry (Alfred Enoch), Dorian’s internal self becomes monstrous as he loses all notion of consequence. In a Gothic twist his physical face stays beautiful, the signs of his internal hideousness manifesting instead on the charmed portrait kept in his attic, painted by Basil. The denoument is a suicide, a death that reverses the gothic magic that has occurred, leaving an old and disfigured man on the floor, while the portrait version of Dorian is perfectly preserved. Of course, it isn’t fair to summarise Wilde’s book in four sentences, but the cleverness of this play is that it digs deep into the point of the book instead of being crass and superficial. This results in a work of art that unflinchingly engages with vanity and self-curating online, not with moralising eyes but with an empathetic realism.
For all that I can’t look away from the screen, the play is a tough one, undoubtedly. I remember well reading Wilde’s book, the way that much as I enjoyed it I found it unnerving in that dulled way that a modern reader feels comfortingly accustomed to Victorian gothic. The portrait stayed in my mind as a clear metaphor that I could distance from, close with the book and not feel troubled by. The genius of this production is that it doesn’t let that happen. Starting from that much quoted A.C. Clarke law, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, it allows the narrative to pivot into realism, the smoke-and-mirrors of the oil portrait replaced by the mundane invention of a new face filter. The technology enhances all digital renditions of the face instilling in them that ‘je-ne-sais-quoi’ of influencer content that ensures staggering digital engagement. The writer, Henry Filloux-Bennett, has evidently thought deeply on the metaphor that Wilde set up in the portrait/ face dichotomy. Unlike in the book, it is the online filter that is beautiful and alluring and the physical body of Dorian, stuck in a room and not seen by anyone, which becomes haggard and ill, replacing the portrait in the attic. In doing so, reality becomes unstable, a stunningly clever reflection of the manner in which self-curatorship and self-identity at the moment do not reside as much as we might hope in our bodies, but rather migrate to how external eyes perceive us online.
Unlike almost every play and film which dramatizes social media that I’ve seen up to now, Dorian Gray doesn’t reek of censorious boomerisms; with nuance it shows the exploitative and parasitic relationship between tech brands and young influencers. Without snobbishness it flattens distinctions in media, problematising the assumption that emotional intensity can be transmitted only through literature by asking truly interesting questions about content creation via social media. People aren’t allowed to exist in literarti unreachability. Dorian is a YouTuber, his girlfriend Sybil (Emma McDonald) acts out poetry and plays with amazing poise, but through the saccharine form of 60 second TikToks. After Dorian is gifted his magic filter, his numbers sky-rocket and he suddenly becomes famous, venerated and valuable. Things turn quickly from there, he becomes cruel and pathologically self-obsessed to the point that he offers his girlfriend no support when she goes viral for forgetting her lines in an RSC show, which unnervingly mirrors the very show you are watching: “you’re just a shit actress”, he says, “who gives even shitter blowjobs”. In a horrifying crystalisation of the way the play toys with a modern need to read ourselves into stories of the past, Sybil, after her failed RSC show, performs Hamlet’s famous soliloquy as a vlog of her suicide note, in doing so at once writing herself into, and out of the public cruelness that has lead to her death. In demystifying the place of the charmed portrait, the horror locates itself in unnervingly familiar vitriolic twitter storms, social isolation from necessary lockdowns and that constant pressure of being haunted by the digital footprint that shadows modern mistakes.
Dorian is an English undergrad locked away in his halls because of Covid. He radiates a friendly and easy charm, that you come to mourn in the second half as everything turns darker. The English student idea is smart too, because it gives the character a reason to quote long chunks of Wilde (who metatextually he refers to often), without forcing him into the old-time plumminess that characterises the velvet dressing gown-wearing Henry. The play makes well-judged efforts to tether itself to a feeling of presentness: Henry makes amusingly shady comments about the National Theatre YouTube streams, Dorian makes jokes about the rent protests he is involved in and asks his best friend if he’s finished binging Queen’s Gambit yet. Joanna Lumley, radiant in her part as Lady Narborough, is cloying and hypocritical, organising a birthday party for Dorian in the middle of lockdown but passing it off as a fundraiser dinner: “I don’t want any comeback, it wasn’t a party” (I can’t help but have my mind wander to the Oxford Union, which incidentally features in the play briefly, as Henry does a speech there). By the end, Dorian’s wholesome YouTube content with good vibes and bad lighting is long gone, replaced instead by familiar far-right conspiracy theories about government hoaxes and ‘Waif Fair’. Fake news and its propensity to spread online like wildfire is alluded to, but the term is not used in a way to obscure the agency of the characters but rather the boundaries of the definition is widened, made to bleed into other falsehoods; masking reality, dressing up, telling stories.
Refreshingly though, it’s not a play trying to scare you into digital hermitage – this isn’t on the nose like The Social Dilemma. It’s a lot about the mental health epidemic we are experiencing; it foregrounds young people who are unsupported by organisations and the cost that that has. Watching it, the theme of student suicide is something that feels horrendously familiar, to the point that at certain moments it’s horribly close to the bone. The way that the play handles this, however, with the centrality and seriousness it deserves, makes it seem as if it has been written and directed by someone who has taken the time to think about it, rather than sloppily nod to it in that faux-glamourised way that so many teen dramas of the 2010s were so fond of doing.
It seems strange, with all this brilliant acting and searingly wonderful scriptwriting, to get hyped about the video-editing, but honestly, it deserves it. While the actors never appear together on screen, conversations are cut so that they respond to one another, the slippery interviewer (Stephen Fry- who in all fairness, you see about twice) seeming to disloyally tell everyone what is being said behind their backs. The echo chamber style of discourse that this creates, with no possibility to engage or reply, is a lovely metaphor for the online world it explores. What you get from this show is a brand new genre that is authentically theatre, yet harnesses the power of filmmaking. Probably for the first time since Covid started, I don’t come away from it thinking ‘ah, good for them, they did a good job, considering…’, this is a thrilling master stroke, a new genre, a new production tailor-made for an audience in lockdown, here, now.
After so much quoting of Shakespeare, Williams, Wilde, the last scene is a Facetime call between Henry and Dorian, from before the beginning of the play. Following the queer subtexts in the book, there are queer relationships in the play and this is one of them, but refreshingly we’re not subjected to that tired and bigoted trope of ‘selfish and self-obsessed gays’; rather, the attraction and tenderness between Henry and Dorian is amongst those sustaining and positive moments in the play which audience genuinely yearns for when everything inevitably turns sour. Reading Henry a bedtime story to delay the wrench of hanging up on cyber proximity, Dorian reads from Roal Dahl’s The Twits: ““If a person has ugly thoughts, it begins to show on the face. And when that person has ugly thoughts every day, every week, every year, the face gets uglier and uglier until you can hardly bear to look at it. A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts it will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.”
At the final moment of the play, Henry is asked: “how will you remember him?” “Certainly at his best” he replies, and behind the sweetness, the image of the charmed filter is brought to mind. Wilde tells us that “Each of us has heaven and hell in them”; Tamara Harvey’s unflinchingly brilliant production invites us to remember that the same can be said for truth, and we would do well to remember it. The play will premiere tonight and runs till the end of March.
Thank you so much to The Oxford Playhouse for the press ticket, and for the use of these pictures.