THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY
18/03/2023 - 25/03/2023
By Oscar Wilde
Adapted and Directed Kip Williams
Sydney Theatre Company
Sydney Theatre Company’s exhilarating “reinvention of theatre” (Time Out) arrives hot on the heels of sold-out Australian seasons. Don’t miss the international cine-theatre event of the year before it takes the world by storm.
Immoral. Immortal. Immense. Hailed as a “dizzyingly beautiful tour de force” (The Guardian), The Picture of Dorian Gray is an odyssey of theatrical storytelling. Featuring a “brilliant, breathtaking, bravura performance” (ArtsHub) from Eryn Jean Norvill, and a performance by stunning cast alternate Nikki Shiels on Wed 22 Mar, this justifiably lauded play – which sees one actor play 26 different characters in an audacious cascade of theatrical transformations – continues to be met with widespread critical acclaim.
Building on a career-long fascination with spectacular, innovative reimaginings of classic stories for the stage, STC’s Artistic Director Kip Williams has adapted Wilde’s century-old fable of beauty – and a deal with the devil – to create a magnificent mirror of our times. A scintillating mix of cutting-edge design, lush period drama and astonishing live video, this vibrantly contemporary production is gripping, funny and simply “genius” (Limelight); “a once in a lifetime triumph of theatre” (Beat Magazine); and “a dazzling masterpiece no one should miss” (The Age).
Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre, Aotea Centre
Saturday 18 – Saturday 25 March 2023
Wed – Sat, 8pm
+ Sun 19 & Sat 25 March, 2pm
$30 – $139
Pre-show talk: Tue 21 March, 6pm.
Kip Williams, Artistic Director, Sydney Theatre Company.
Moderated by Nathan Joe, Auckland Pride.
On Wed 22 March, The Picture of Dorian Gray will be performed by alternate cast member Nikki Shiels.
Access and Inclusion:
– A touch tour will be available on Tuesday 21 March at 5pm, prior to the 7pm performance.
– Closed Captioning is available on Saturday 25 March matinee session.
Recommended for ages 12+
Contains adult themes, drug use, suicide, theatrical haze and smoke effects
Original production supported by Frances Allan & Ian Narev, and Megan Grace & Brighton Grace and Presenting Partner Allens.
Performer: Eryn Jean Norvill
Alternate Performer: Nikki Shiels
Designer: Marg Horwell
Lighting Designer: Nick Schlieper
Composer & Sound Designer: Clemence Williams
Video Designer: David Bergman
Dramaturge & Creative Associate: Eryn Jean Norvill
Production Dramaturg: Paige Rattray
Assistant Director: Ian Michael
Theatre , Multimedia ,
1 hr 55 min no interval
Mesmerising, inspirational, oozes expense, with the attention to detail in all its elements
Review by Renee Liang 19th Mar 2023
Who are we to ourselves, and how do others see us? This is the question driving the actions of the titular character of The Picture of Dorian Gray, the powerhouse piece of Australian theatre that opened in Auckland last night. Directed by Kip Williams for Sydney Theatre Company, this is a genre-breaking work that demands as much of its audiences as it does of its performers.
Williams describes this work as ‘cinetheatre’, but it is much more than a simple melding of the forms of screen and live performance. A ‘single’ actor on stage is filmed, projected live onto a giant screen. The camera angles change as the actor changes from one character into another, using the time-honoured theatrical devices of gesture, voice and props. And then the first big surprise drops and we realise that what we are witnessing is neither filmed performance nor a film, but a complex utilisation of both, that smashes the boundaries between them.
Williams plays throughout with gaze: the cameras on the performer, the translation through editing technology onto the screen, the (dead) writer on the director, the actor on the director, the actor on her assistants and herself as actor, the audience on everything including ourselves as watchers.
Film is traditionally a medium where our gaze is directed, but used in live performance our eyes are free to roam. Who are we to believe – the performer who sometimes performs obscured or off stage, the screens which show a version different to what we are seeing live, or the voice of the author telling us what is happening? The screens and set pieces glide and constantly swap, adding further to our pleasurable disorientation.
The text for this play is lifted directly from Oscar Wilde’s 1891 novel. It’s relevant perhaps to note that even Wilde’s original text was moulded by the gaze of his contemporaries, with references to homosexual desire and extramarital sex edited out before the publication of various versions, sometimes by Wilde himself. The verbatim performance of this text demands focus from an audience more used to modern vernacular and the type of potted philosophy found in popular culture.
It’s a complex and fast-moving text, delivered at breakneck speed by Eryn Jean Norvill, the actor on opening night. The prim morals of that time initially make us react with pity and derision (and provide moments of humour). But soon the modern references creep in and we realise that modern society has a lot more in common with the 19th century than we like to admit.
In the programme notes, set and costume designer Marg Howell speaks to her varied influences: as well as the nineteenth century, she cites Prince, Harry Styles, Liberace, Tilda Swinton and Vivienne Westwood. ‘Feminine’ and ‘masculine’ elements mix together for an extravagantly campy effect, and this effect is taken through to the meticulously detailed sets, rich with colour, metaphor and floral detail. Howell and the design team have made full use of the freedom afforded to them by our time, and they show us what Wilde was only able to suggest.
Through the two hour run time of this show, the ‘solo’ performer – Eryn Jean Norvill, also credited as the dramaturg – displays incredible endurance and focus. She isn’t, of course, the only performer on stage. Apart from a brief beautiful scene towards the end of the play, Norvill is visibly surrounded by dozens of people, operating cameras, changing her appearance (including detailed wigs, prosthetics and elaborate costumes), as well as digital versions of herself playing different characters. The movements of the on-stage performers – precisely timed, swooping in and out in circular movements, rolling enormous set pieces silently in place in the background – add a choreographic element to the performance.
By turning the ‘backstage’ inside-out, Williams reveals the artifice of what we are seeing. All theatre and film are an illusion, after all. The actor is just a held-up screen for the hours of work behind the scenes. But isn’t that the way in real life too, when we present ourselves? The extreme camera closeups reveal the makeup on the actor’s skin: later we are shown the modern day equivalents, smartphone filters and botox injections. How many of us have never tried to modify our appearance for public display? And how many have felt conflicted by that lie – as Dorian Gray does?
The work also holds a mirror up to how our modern celebrity-focussed, hedonistic culture takes us away from the things we should perhaps value more: love, loyalty, truth. Maybe the constant watching, forcing us to present as shallow shells of ourselves, affects us as much as it does Dorian Gray. I feel Wilde would have approved of this realisation.
The Picture Of Dorian Gray is a far cry from the traditional one-hander of an actor and a chair – although that’s how it begins. But many of the same techniques are used. The piece still depends on the voice and gesture of a single actor. Norvill’s stage presence is what holds the piece, with all of its technological wizardry, together. Facing to camera at times, interacting with projected characters or directly addressing the audience at others, she is a mesmerising presence, and her winks and reactions to the text add a sly humour.
Why the decision to get a solo performer to play 26 characters? (Budget isn’t a factor in this show). In the programme director’s note, Williams references the ‘omniscient and omnipresent observer (within ourselves) that records our every action’ – adding, ‘some might call this the ‘ego’, others our ‘conscience’ or ‘soul’.
The body of the actor moving through their fictional world is all of us moving through our real worlds. It’s the gaze again – a vital and terrible thing, the thing that both makes us human and threatens to rob us of our humanity. In this world, in some communities, being able to control how we are perceived is indeed a life and death situation.
This production oozes expense, with the attention to detail in all its elements, its seamless integration of cutting edge tech, and a long development period evident in its realisation and direction. It’s the kind of vision our native theatre companies would struggle to realise in this current funding environment, despite ample talent. But one of the roles our big Arts Festivals have is to bring groundbreaking international productions here to inspire audiences and local creatives. The Auckland Arts Festival has admirably fulfilled this task with the The Picture Of Dorian Gray.
Copyright © in the review belongs to the reviewer