Eryn-Jean Norvill has been honing her craft since the early noughties. Her mainstage roles include Ophelia in Melbourne Theatre Company’s Hamlet, Juliet in Sydney Theatre Company’s Romeo and Juliet and Justine in a 2018 reimagining of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia for the Malthouse Theatre. But nothing has tapped into her virtuosity like The Picture of Dorian Gray, a dazzling collaboration with Kip Williams that will debut on Broadway after its Melbourne season. This production transforms Oscar Wilde’s moral fable for the smartphone generation as Norvill deploys a shapeshifting energy to play 26 characters.
For Norvill, performing means following her instincts. It’s a process that, in the past, has been helped along by Spaces, a 2013 album by Nils Frahm in which the German musician defies sonic borders, ferrying the listener towards new emotional terrain.
You first started listening to the Berlin-based pianist Nils Frahm as a student at the Victorian College of the Arts. How did you find his work and how did it impact you?
I started listening to [Estonian composer] Arvo Pärt and then followed a [trail] and ended up finding Nils Frahm. I would use his music a lot in preparing to play a part. Because sometimes my work is heavily language-driven, it really helped me. What I really enjoy about Nils is how he plays with the energy and emotions in my body. I’ve used it ever since.
I’ve returned to Nils Frahm because I like very much how he plays with the elasticity of form. He is both contemporary and classical and all the other things. I first attended a concert of his maybe eight years ago at the [Sydney] Opera House. It was like watching theatre. He was telling a story even though there were no words.
Language is wonderful but can be so limiting.
Totally! There seems to be an infinite sense of elasticity with music. Language has so much more of an agenda. Sometimes words can be very claustrophobic. That’s what I find so liberating about Nils Frahm’s work. It makes you think about what you are seeing or where you are. It feels both intimate and extremely grand at the same time.
You’ve chosen to speak about Nils Frahm’s 2013 album Spaces, a lush and restless work that is also experimental – he overlays minimalist piano compositions with percussion and synths. What draws you to it? The space that it leaves for the audience is very generous.
I like that word, generous. The way that he recorded it, there was a series of live concerts and he patchworked the album together. He includes the titters and the mobile phones and the applause. There’s this cacophony of different instruments on stage, some of which he’s made. I feel like he has taken a leap of faith, taken a series of risks. It enables me to go on whatever journey I want to take on whatever day I want to listen to it. It’s deeply interpretive. And it feels like something I’ve never heard before.
I’ve never heard an album that is at one stage a mistake – he celebrates a cough. And then the next track feels so decisive and clear and has a beginning, middle and end. The next track is a trance track and the next seems to go back a hundred years. Similarly, in the way we made The Picture of Dorian Gray, Kip Williams and I have always tried to follow intuitively what we think serves the story. Usually that means creating new pathways for form. I recognise that in Nils Frahm and I know how scary it is.
I don’t think we are really encouraged culturally to follow our intuition.
That’s true – I think mostly people are punished for it. I think intuition is the only thing that helps me navigate a true north for myself. I remember in concert Nils Frahm said, “I surround myself with instruments that I can trust so I don’t just run away and throw up.” I also really relate to that, but the instruments are people for me. Once you have that foundation, then you can take risks.
One of the most thrilling aspects of watching you on stage in Dorian Gray is the way you are almost figuring out how to inhabit the material as you go along. There’s a profound sense of play in Frahm’s work – at one point during Spaces, he hits the piano strings with a toilet brush. What does improvisation mean to you?
When we were building Dorian, I had to kind of intuit and originate these characters, follow the thread of what I thought was right. The pillars of that work were conceived through improv and trial and error and, often, heaps of failure. That was and is always very scary.
In this show the opportunity to fail is very large. When this happens, I feel the audience lean forward. I feel them will me to attempt again. It is live theatre and it can be very electric. As an audience member, I always love when I come out feeling energised by a performance – and it’s always when I witnessed something that I didn’t understand.
Spaces – and Frahm’s music in general – traverses many facets of the human experience, from sorrow and grief to joy and transcendence. In Dorian Gray, you inhabit the spectrum of human complexity. You channel the hedonism of Dorian, the vulnerability of Sibyl, the arrogance of Lord Henry. It’s rare to see an actor embody so many different emotional states.
Especially as a woman! It is a deep privilege, but it also feels like one of the most real engagements with myself that I’ve ever had. As a person I feel the complexity of what it is to exist. It is like you have many different faces in any one day, some are beautiful, some are grotesque. One of the most unlikeable characters is Dorian, and when he makes choices that have a questionable moral stance he becomes so charismatic that sense of play and enigma becomes engorged. I can feel the audience relish that.
As a performer, the gift of it is that I am constantly mining the work – there is a curiosity about every single character because they are so vast. As a woman, a lot of the roles that I’ve played previously have been moral tokens for the male journey. I didn’t grow as a performer in those roles. I learned but I didn’t grow. So, this feels right.
To me, Nils Frahm’s work draws some of its power from its imperfection. You trained as a clown at the Ecole Philippe Gaulier, which taught you to embrace a style of performing based less on hierarchy and more on vulnerability. Why does this matter to you?
I think that something has happened in the last little while where the idea of power and leadership has kind of been flipped on its head for me. I used to think that a sense of hierarchy – when someone’s voice is the pinnacle at the top – was the most powerful shape in a room. I’ve actually realised that the inverse is the reality, that the most vulnerable person is the most powerful in the room. I know that structurally that is in opposition to our society. But I’ve witnessed so many times how openness or vulnerability can still a room. Building a foundation so everyone can feel safe and open is important to me.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 11, 2022 as "Eryn-Jean Norvill".
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