Anna Mahtani investigates the curious tale of an online adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray
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As movie theatres close, theatre movies are moving in. The National Theatre (NT) has launched its streaming services, NSDF has made the digital leap, and more and more productions are being created and shown entirely online. With scenes filmed on stages and special effects, The Picture of Dorian Gray finds itself right at the centre of an emerging genre.
With its gorgeous set design, moving performances and Wilde-like wit, Dorian Gray is more than worth a watch. The play is delightfully self-aware: the self-deprecating in-jokes keep coming at you; Alfred Enoch’s Harry Wotton mocks NT At Home while heralding Coriolanus, the play he himself was in; and the sheer volume of Shakespeare and Wilde references is enough to make any literature student jump with glee. But the play stumbles in its second act, and the irony of receiving lecture about the dangers of social media in an online production creates an imbalance in an otherwise strong production. How does the story benefit (and potentially suffer) from the theatre-film hybrid?
Texts, videos, hate comments fill the screen; title cards indicate what’s to come; music plays over previously seen moments, changing the tone. The camera is used sparingly, though to great effect. We zoom in on Lady Narborough and snap back when she refuses close-ups, slow-motion and lighting give an impression of a vibrant world of intimacy despite social distancing, and in Harry and Dorian’s first calls the colour fringing and blurred edges give the impression that they are the only ones in the world. The production seems to strike the perfect balance between play and film.
Later though, the effect is lost. What in theatre could be glanced over, forgiven and forgotten, in film is immortalised. The act of filming gives authority, permanence. If Harry Potter walked onto screen in a blanket and asked us to imagine it’s an invisibility cloak, we’d laugh. When Puck says, “I am invisible”, we believe him. The Picture of Dorian Gray neither has the high-budget special effects of cinema nor the suspension of disbelief of stage: Dorian’s Instagram becomes lacklustre, his videos are boggish, and the attempt at horror in flickering between the real Dorian and his image is laughable. Were he on stage we’d give in to the magic readily. Neither dazzling nor darkly attractive, Dorian’s online self disappoints. The character’s reaction to it is powerful, but ours is not. Instead of adding to the experience, the visuals detract. A lack of subtlety, sometimes necessary on stage, feels condescending on screen.
The production’s true-crime documentary style provided excellent hindsight, unmatched comedy, delightfully unreliable and reluctant narrators, and a heart-breaking knowledge of the ending. And the final revelation that Basil Hallward is “executive producer” throws the question of authenticity up in the air. Just as the camera directs our attention, the characters of the play stop us from seeing the whole stage.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is a story about the filters we put on for the world. This adaptation is a surprisingly unfiltered form of film. Ultimately, the show’s limits stem rather from an incomplete story, than from a flawed form.
There’s a disconnect between the expectations of film, and those of theatre. And if this new format is to find its footing, not only must it set itself aside from both, but we must set aside our expectations. The tradition in theatre is to tell, in film it is to show. The Picture of Dorian Gray tries to do both. Theatre films are opening theatre up to a wider audience, but it remains to be seen whether the format will stand on its own, toeing the line between stage and screen, or if it’ll fail to be either. Generosity, and a willingness to experiment is needed to give the genre life: trust the actors, trust the audience, and let the camera bring the two together.
With the exciting upcoming NT Romeo and Juliet – filmed half on stage, half on location – the genre is only just picking up speed, and could, quite literally, show all the world to be a stage.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is co-produced by the Barn Theatre, the Lawrence Batley Theatre, the New Wolsey Theatre, Oxford Playhouse and Theatr Clwyd