Theatre

Eryn Jean Norvill’s bravura portrayal of 26 characters in Sydney Theatre Company’s remarkable adaptation is a triumph. By Bri Lee.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Eryn Jean Norvill in Sydney Theatre Company’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Credit: Dan Boud

The word on everyone’s lips as they entered was: how? I heard people murmuring behind their face masks, wondering how one actor would do all 26 parts, or how much Kip Williams – director and adaptor – had changed in Oscar Wilde’s classic The Picture of Dorian Gray. My theatre companion and I were sceptical of how it could be done in a way that didn’t feel like a high school drama project.

The answer to our questions arrived immediately: Eryn Jean Norvill. The show begins with Norvill seated on an almost bare stage. Three camera operators are visible at work around her, and a huge screen from floor to ceiling hangs centre stage, on which is displayed vision recorded in real time from alternating cameras. The audience can see the bones of the space, right through to the brick wall at the back.

Norvill begins to deliver lines from painter Basil Hallward, his friend Lord Henry Wotton and the omniscient narrator of the original text. In the first two minutes there are many laughs; the pace is fast, the delivery assured. It’s a dance between actor, lens, actor, screen, actor and audience that rockets along for two hours with no intermission. I could have taken two more.

This work isn’t conceived as a conventional play. As sets come and go in smooth, visible transitions, the most extraordinary thing happens in the mind of the viewer: we fill in the gaps. A parlour scene, for instance, might offer an abundance of camp flowers and velvets, but only in the focal point of the space. The brain populates the rest.

Similarly, it’s easy for the mind to bridge the space between actor and screen. I’ve not experienced such a marriage between the imaginations of the minds behind this production, their trust that the audience will meet them halfway. We were never condescended to. I felt the most incredible sense of creating the show as it went along.

Shortly after the first scene opens, hair and make-up are changed onstage while the action continues, and Norvill emerges again, transformed into the famously beautiful Dorian Gray. Somehow this woman now has chubby cheeks, a youthful, borderline-juvenile countenance and an adorable energy. Golden curls frame her face as she bounds across the wide metreage of the full stage like a cherubic doe.

Then, snap! With witty dialogue from Henry, a cigarette in hand, banter between Hallward, Wotton and Gray continues. When Dorian gets some fresh air outside, Henry joins him, and we sense an electric sexual tension between them. Yes – between Norvill and Norvill. It takes phenomenal skill to portray such eccentric characters in filmed close-ups that are projected onto a metres-high screen. It takes even more to then interact with those depictions of yourself in a way that creates true emotional depth and stakes. It’s all timed perfectly. You hope they’re paying Norvill all 26 wages.

The videos combine high production values and complete commitment. It’s as if they’ve made a dozen short films as well as a play. The sensibility that springs to mind is “to the hilt”. A climactic hunting scene in a forest was positively cinematic. The interweaving of pre-recorded content, live video and live action onstage was also the source of countless hilarious moments of subverted expectation. I won’t spoil any of the delights: this performance is perpetually self-aware and self-referential but never cheap or ironic. The spirit of Wilde was winking at us.

Special mention goes to Clemence Williams for composition and sound design; I’ve never before encountered a clash of club beats and baroque that didn’t feel on the nose, and the music mix was integral. Fans of the novel will remember the vile, churning sensation when Dorian visits the opium den by the docks and is confronted by a man on a revenge mission – the thumping beats and real-time face distortions combined to create a true sense of wretchedness. Norvill’s ability to make herself beautiful one moment and disgusting the next is astonishing.

The show raises interesting questions of authorship. Its base text, the novel, is deliciously singular in creative vision. Plays and screen productions, by contrast, are cacophonies of voices. It’s very clear in this case that the production would never have been so strong had it been somehow identical but with a cast of multiple actors. The singular rhythm and commitment from Norvill is part of its DNA. It gets away with it because, along with director Williams, Norvill is also dramaturg; there is a deep synchronicity that allows the audience to relax into her safe hands.

Norvill and Williams have collaborated on a number of productions, going back to Romeo and Juliet in 2013 and more recently 2015’s Suddenly Last Summer, which also played with live video. Assistant director Ian Michael wrote and acted in the deservedly award-winning HART, which was a solo theatre work too, and has clearly brought that experience to his debut with Sydney Theatre Company.

All the extra media works because the text they’re working with is already symbolic and meta. The novel is an artwork about artworks, a portrait of a young man about a portrait of a young man. Wilde knew the book would be accused of “corrupting” readers with its homoeroticism and included a reference within the novel to a different book that corrupts his gorgeous protagonist.

It’s easy to see allegories to our image-obsessed world, but the show’s real credit is that among the laughs and cleverness it grapples with some deeper philosophical issues. The tormented soul of Dorian as he tumbles into a hellish abyss is genuinely unsettling. What would any of us do if we knew we could get away with it? What is moral or immoral if no one witnesses? Does a “soul” come from within us or is it policed and created by our peers?

Nobody coughed or sniffled through the whole show. The crowd was in a kind of rapture. The thunderous standing ovation was immediate, a roar despite the sparseness of the restricted seating. The word on everyone’s lips as we left was: how? How did she do it? Because make no mistake: she did it.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, until December 19.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 5, 2020 as "Every shade of Gray".

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Bri Lee is a lawyer and the author of Eggshell Skull and Beauty.