I still remember the feeling of being invited to a play that day in March. For months I’ve been wandering around Berlin and visiting local theatres with closed doors, now more abandoned than most international airports. I still hold tickets to Timothée Chalamet’s planned West End debut last April, and Jake Gyllenhaal’s play last June, at Old Vic and Savoy respectively, both of which have not housed a live audience for more than a year. Buying a ticket for The Picture of Dorian Gray, a production Oxford Playhouse is part of, felt like squeezing out a big blob of sunscreen and smearing it all over your face, amidst a once-in-a-blue-moon monsoon season that doesn’t know when to end.
But the moment I clicked on the play button on my laptop screen, with my friend’s face propped up next to mine in tiny Zoom squares, I started to doubt whether I was expecting more stage light from the luminaires than there actually is. The show is a modern take on Oscar Wilde’s cautionary tale of vice and vanity, putting in the place of an oil portrait of this century’s static and moving pictures on social media platforms: Dorian Gray (Fionn Whitehead), a second-year English student, starts a YouTube channel during the pandemic. Alongside vlogging, he also dabbles into the trade of individual charm and persona for mass praise and affection, on Instagram as well as less public domains like Grindr. With Gray being his own portrait painter, Basil Hallward (Russell Tovey) in the alternative tale only offers the final touches to the picture: with his geeky expertise, he gives Dorian a filter software that exonerates the influencer’s face on the internet from blemishes, so that he’s not only spared from ageing but also absolved of marks left by late-night raves and substance abuse, measures of quick pleasures that often prove crueller to the look and health of today’s young people than time.
The Henry Wotton played by Alfred Enoch is probably the character that strays the least away from his Victorian prototype: dressed in flamboyant three-piece on camera, and bare-chested in embroidered morning gown in bed, he is every bit the upper-class diva who, when expertly flirting with Dorian over video calls, displays his curving fingers and slender wrists in front of the camera without showing his face, handling the young man single-handedly. At a dinner party arranged for upcoming socialites by Lady Narborough (Joanna Lumley), a celebrity from the old generation who is more grounded in reality stays well connected and respected despite her inexperience with her laptop’s front camera, and stands in stark contrast to her phone-addicted juniors — Dorian meets aspiring young actress Sibyl Vane (Emma McDonald), who enters drama competitions on stage, but is equally attuned to performative self-presentation on Instagram, using social media’s expansive exposure to her advantage by posting her renderings of famous theatre speeches, as well as live-streaming her dramatic readings of famous book extracts, with costumes and make-up all in place. As Dorian dives deeper into his chaotic lifestyle of drugs and online hookups, his moral standards slacken whilst his online image remains intact and flawless, boding the eventual collapse of his physical and mental health.
The famous Wilde opus is in no lack of adaptations, as the numerous previous attempts span across cinema, theatre, literature, radio, and television, ranging all the way from silent films in the early 20th century to a Korean musical five years ago. But few are the adaptations forced to adapt. The Lawrence Batley Theatre’s Henry Filloux-Bennett, together with director Tamara Harvey, already experimented with digital format by putting Jonathan Coe’s crime novel What a Carve Up! on the virtual stage last year during the first lockdown. But even back then, with resources from three theatres, the word “theatre” itself never took the central stage: the ticket website was honest with the lack of a live performance, and mentioned instead an assembly of each cast member’s sections recorded in isolation, comparing the production to a “Netflix crime documentary”. Even Harvey herself hesitates to confine its storytelling form in the show’s program, and only loosely defines it as something that “isn’t theater, isn’t telly and isn’t radio — that is entirely its own thing.”
What’s noteworthy this time round, however, is the characters’ own resistance to the theatrical form within the show. Designed as an interview conducted by a nameless face on a video call (Stephen Fry), the visual narrative reminds less of a whodunnit on stage, and more of two filmed vampire stories that also put characters in the interviewee’s chair: the cinema adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1994), and Taika Waititi’s faux documentary series What We Do in the Shadows.
Similar to what happens in these two screen productions, the characters themselves in The Picture are as aware of the ongoing filming process as the audience. This is not only made visible by the lighting and sound equipment lying around within the frame but also the characters’ spontaneous interactions with an amorphous presence behind the camera: Lady Narborough fidgets in her seat and adjusts her facial expressions as she confronts the front light; and Henry, more aggressive in his approach to the lense’s intrusion, at one point interrupts the interview and attempts to leave the spotlight, refusing to rewatch Sibyl’s live suicide. Under the watching eyes of a film crew, the characters are flustered and unsettled in their on-stage reality, on their own turf, like endangered polar bears struggling to stay afloat on melting ice floes.
Acting aside, characters’ storylines also bear symbolic function to hint at theatre’s waning strength as a medium. Sibyl, the girl who’s inured to the performance of an online version of herself, and is not only comfortable with — but seeking comfort from — the rising amount of anonymous attention she gains with each post and livestream, gets stage fright in front of a theatre audience and forgets her lines from the most famous of Shakespeare monologues; the protagonist Dorian, who excels at nurturing and maintaining an immaculate appearance in his videos and pictures, feels the need to hide his face behind a mask when walking on the street, afraid for the outside world to see his imperfections, to witness the gradual failure of his one-man show, afraid that signs of the disorder in his real life will eventually encroach on his online profile. The profusion of liberty, of means to prepare, rehearse, and repair if anything goes wrong, seems to have spoiled the latest generation of drama enthusiasts portrayed in the show; and what grants them the opportunity to polish what they present seems to have crippled them in return, eventually distancing them from the real stage, the real audience – and perhaps even the real art.
And what does this realisation leave us with The Picture of Dorian Gray? Seeing that it has the freedom of doing multiple takes for each movement and spoken line; of dissecting a live stage performance into footages that can be selected and further embellished; of editing them together in any order one would like; of not having to arrange the cast’s schedules and instead only needing the asynchronically recorded clips — the holistic quality of the spatial-temporal framework provided by a theatre, a venue dedicated to its eponymous art form, is stabbed and broken into pieces, like the Dorian Grays and their respective portraits, be it a social media account or an actual painting.
Like the portrait tapping into the existence of its sitter in the original Wilde story, so is this year’s Dorian sucked into his online ego. And, like cinema, will theatre too be swallowed by the increasingly prevalent streaming platforms? And once it’s done, will it be rendered more fragile and fleeting by the new format, forever preserved on the net but not promised to be lasting? The question is no less frightening than Wilde’s gothic tale, which probably explains why I don’t feel warned by Dorian’s tragic death this time, but instead by his smashed phone screen at the end.