I was told once that if something that you post on Instagram or Twitter doesn’t get enough likes or comments within a certain number of hours, one should just simply delete it and move on. He went on to say, maybe not outright, but in essence, that you should see it as a failure, and leaving it on would only damage your brand. Erasing the obvious embarrassment was really the only option. The idea struck me hard, and made my heart sink. It’s pretty clear to anyone looking at either of frontmezzjunkies’ social media accounts that I did not listen to that advice, nor did I take it seriously. Maybe I should have, but the idea left me a bit sick to my stomach, to be honest, that we who use social media are being trained by our own internalized reactions to think along those lines. It’s clear that most folks focus and remember the ‘failure’ instantly as some sort of rejection of our person. That we take in the negativity spontaneously, unconsciously, and automatically, while simultaneously becoming addicted to the positive while discarding it as quickly as they ‘likes’ come in. ‘I got 500 ‘likes’ but those two mean comments really burned into me.’ I’ve heard that statement many a times. It’s problematic and a disturbing construct, that recently came up in a fantastic conversation with a good friend on a hike. The topic centered around rejection, external validation, and how it plays in the world of gay male friendships, dating, sex, and interpersonal engagement, especially on dating and sex apps. It’s a subject that continually comes up in my psychotherapy practice around love, value, desire, and self-worth. And it’s a landscape that is seemingly difficult to navigate, especially when it comes to social media and our value as a person.
“What happened to Dorian is tragic…social media is killing people,” we are told, but the reality of our virtual world is much more devious and internal. With all those important psychological ideas and conceptualizations swirling around with an ever increasing consistency, the online remake of The Picture of Dorian Gray, brought to us by the Barn Theatre in Cirencester, alongside Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre, Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre, Oxford Playhouse and Theatr Clwyd, seductively streamed its way most powerfully into my head and soul like a glittering starry meteorite crashing into my internal landscape. Structured and embedded most wisely in the disturbing pic-obsessed world of social media by writer Henry Filloux-Bennett (The New York Times Critic’s Pick What a Carve Up!) and director Tamara Harvey (Olivier Award winning Home I’m Darling), the solid timeliness of this impeccable creation can not be denied. Our anti-hero, Dorian Gray, played with an off-balance charm by Fionn Whitehead (Richard Eyre’s The Children Act), is a social media influencer, who gets caught, like his historical literary namesake, in his own internal war on aesthetics over ethics, letting his own reality disintegrate behind a picture-perfect online fake persona that, he is told, will never fade. But reality takes a different turn.
In this updated theatrical version, Gray has be re-envisioned as a well intentioned university student, struggling with isolation and aloneness inside the social limitations of lockdown. Like many of us, he turns with simple desperation to the internet for connection and community, starting a YouTube channel to talk about life and literature. We all know this feeling and the need, as well as all those channels where people are talking out to the void, hoping they are being listened to, and through luck or privilege he is greeted by others, slowly at first, with love and attention. More specifically, he sees love and adoration from the handsome and arrogant snob, Harry Wotton, played with captivating aggression by the very good Alfred Enoch (ITV’s Broadchurch). Their interactions are oddly possessive and sexaul, displaying the complications that surround gay men and friendships, especially in regards to desire, jealousy, and attention. There is also Russell Tovey’s more complex and confounding character, Basil Hallward, a software developer who gifts his friend with eternal radiance, with an unknown subtle catch inside a invisible trap. Tovey (West End’s Angels in America) isn’t given near enough in the structure and the details to dig his impressive acting chops into, as his form is never fully given space to expand. It is achingly clear in this production that we don’t fully understand why either of these two are so taken by Whitehead’s Gray. He’s pretty to look at and seductive in his casual arrogance, in a way that is clear, but Whitehead, from the get-go, tends to offer up petulance and dismissal almost too eagerly and early on for their adoration to really sink authentically in. It’s obvious these two men are smitten though, even if it doesn’t make all that much sense.
Gray tiptoes into the digital world with a literal innocence, but once the gift is given, he, like most people these days, soon finds himself caught in the net of instant external validation and desire. It’s clearly the drug of choice sitting neatly on a slippery slope; an never ending desirous cycle of wanting likes and follows that only is heightened when Basil’s gift fully uploads. We see the fire flicker almost instantly in Gray’s eyes, as he bears witness to the result of the magical filter. The obsessive arena of celebrity clickbait are neatly laid out, and as his numbers rise, Dorian falls fast, especially when captivated by the gorgeous Sibyl Vane, a singer and actress, played brilliantly by Emma McDonald (Sheffield Theatres’ Pride and Prejudice). The two fall in quickly, even as their adoration is never fully fleshed out or explained well. Her star rises fast until her shine starts to eclipse Gray’s glow. The fall out obviously must come, naturally and narcissistically. Laced with all of his bitter jealousy and rage, he burns it all down in a rant that will leave you itching your historic scars in discomfort, because even in all its craziness, there is a kernel of utter authenticity that is just so difficult to witness, and ever so bitter to swallow.
Rounding out the phenomenally gifted cast are two other-world legends, both sadly underused. Stephen Fry (‘Gosford Park‘; “It’s a Sin“) deftly portrays ‘The Interviewer’, who is trying to uncover the true underlying story that left only one of the four central characters alive to tell the tale. Alongside him, there is the magnificent Joanna Lumley (“Absolutely Fabulous“; Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street) as Gray’s adoring older lady friend, Caroline Narborough sitting upright and ready in a comfy chair, trying to bridge the gap between her fundraising event – “not a party” – and the untimely demise of three pivotal internet players. Her intricate involvement remains sadly superficial and just a bit too far removed from the fray to fully understand her role in the toxic tragedy. There is just too little to connect her to the youth-obsessed demographic that can’t find fulfillment within their digital online platform, and although Lumley’s intentions and delivery are focused and impeccable, the writing doesn’t support her heightened inclusion to the interview proper.
“Shall we get to it then?“, she says. Most definitely. Barn‘s The Picture of Dorian Gray rises to the challenge. It is a spot-on revitalization of the classic Oscar Wilde tale, detailing with precision our current online persona obsession with youth and beauty, along with the intense pressures of pandemic lockdowns, isolation, and about a dozen other relevant topics of consideration. Some of those important issues, like online bullying, that I’m thrilled are included, get a bit lost in translation. They become weighed down by heavy-handed ambition of the project, but in no way is this production ever “heading for an epic fail.” It’s far too clever and spectacularly devised. This isn’t “sloppy BBC territory” in the least, but a detailed and exquisite re-formatting of a tale deligniating desperation and rejection that is living and breathing within the design structure of these online platforms. The ultimate goal, worth selling your soul for, is the formulation of the filtered illusion and presentation of a perfect self, delivered to a virtual world eager to dig in, embrace, but ultimately, destroy what it so desires.
You can tell from the get-go that this production has taken on the challenges of social distancing very seriously, while never letting the creativity of the production suffer an inch. The inventiveness of the sets and costumes by Holly Pigott are impressive, along with the mesmerizing detailed work by Benjamin Collins as director of photography, and the intricate sound design and original music by Harry Smith. Together, they elevate the cinematic emotional feel of the production and deliver something fresh and original. Every turn of the proverbial knife is orchestrated from a clearly defined vision that is clever, concise, and solid, all the while maintaining the theatricality of Oscar Wilde’s brilliant novel.
Wilde’s original and epic story about our desperate need for attention at all costs comes together brilliantly in the Barn‘s dazzlingly tragic, “most fortunate” New Leaf formulation. It dares to look at the dark truths that surround our current obsession with youth and beauty, and doesn’t shy away from the deadly outcomes it can procure. The digital age we are living in is fraught with troubling outcomes that can do true damage to the mental health of all that are involved. Once signed in, all it takes is a flip of a finger to filter your way down through the never-ending feed presented on Instagram or Tick-Tock to understand the trappings of the deep dark narcissism and the never ending hungry that lives and breathes inside the addiction to external validation and instant gratification. Rejection and possible dismissal are the feared creatures hanging just around the corner waiting to pounce on their unsuspecting victims, and, like Dorian, the dangerous trap is frightfully easy to download, especially when somewhat desired. Fall into this world but be wary. Take note of the dark side of the magically filtered lens developed by social media. You’ve been warned, that is, with five stars and many ‘likes’.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is streaming online from March 16th to the 31st. Tickets and booking can be made at pictureofdoriangray.com. And remember, like, share, retweet, and above all, follow. “Gray Out.“
For more from Ross click here