The Influence

Sydney Theatre Company artistic director Kip Williams says Sally Potter’s radical film Orlando has influenced all his work – especially his acclaimed production of The Picture of Dorian Gray. By Maddee Clark.

Kip Williams

Tilda Swinton as Orlando in Sally Potter’s 1992 film of the same name, and STC artistic director Kip Williams (below).
Tilda Swinton as Orlando in Sally Potter’s 1992 film of the same name, and STC artistic director Kip Williams (below).
Credit: Adventure Pix / Lenfilm / Mikado / Sigma via Alamy (above), Daniel Boud (below)

Kip Williams is a theatre and opera director who has a long fascination with adaptation and innovation. He has been the artistic director of Sydney Theatre Company since 2016, leading productions of Suddenly Last Summer, Playing Beatie Bow, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet and the acclaimed The Picture of Dorian Gray, starring Eryn Jean Norvill, which will have a second season at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, from March 28, after heading to the Adelaide Festival from March 13. It will be part of Melbourne’s Rising Festival from June 5.

Let’s talk about Sally Potter’s adaptation of Orlando.

I saw the film when I was about 16, before I read the novel, and I was overwhelmed by it. My experience of studying literature at the time was focused on learning rules, particularly rules of certain genres and forms, and Sally Potter’s adaptation is so radical and liberating that it felt like I was discovering a new form altogether.

There are things in the film which are true to Virginia Woolf’s novel, but it’s a relatively loose adaptation. Potter plays with time in a slightly different way from how Woolf does. The film does start in the Elizabethan era in the same way, and then traverses the various epochs of Western history. But Potter brings Orlando right up into the contemporary era of 1992, when the film was made. Over the course of those different periods of history you follow Orlando, who starts as male but in the middle of the narrative wakes up from a very deep sleep and is female. Tilda Swinton plays the lead role of Orlando through that whole transition.

There are two main ways that the work influenced my thinking. First, there’s how Potter plays with gender and sexuality. The film constantly upends notions of gender politics. There’s an extraordinary sequence that plays with the cinematic cliché of the male romantic hero riding out of the mist on horseback, and as the figure emerges you realise it’s Tilda Swinton who’s riding the horse with the love interest clasped around her waist, hanging on for dear life. That kind of active subversion in the piece was so exciting for me as a teenage viewer.

It also influenced me in its subversion of the gaze and of power, and how this can be done in both the form and content. Potter and Swinton constantly break the fourth wall in the piece. Swinton frequently looks to camera at various moments in the work, almost commenting upon the action that is taking place within the narrative.

What kind of conversations have you had about gender in the making of The Picture of Dorian Gray?

The actor I’m working with, Eryn Jean Norvill, is a long-time collaborator of mine. She performs all 26 roles in the show, which is a big ask. We have such a shorthand with each other, a shared sense of humour of camp which evolved out of looking at source materials like Orlando together. We also share a desire to push form in the way that we tell stories.

I think a lot of people look at [Oscar Wilde’s] Dorian Gray and see it as a queer text, which it is, sort of. It’s important to a lot of people because of the homosexual male relationships in the text, and that still very much exists within our production. There is also some misogyny inside the original novel which we draw critical perspective onto. Part of the act of having EJ, the female performer, play these male roles who often engage in toxic male behaviour draws critical perspective upon those behaviours.

The play also speaks to a philosophy of gender, and there is certainly a non-binary philosophy of gender that informs the overarching communication of the production. The drag that takes place in the show is very explicit – you witness EJ having the glue painted on for the sideburns and the moustache to play Lord Henry.

The further she moves into the production, the more time she spends as Dorian Gray, and Dorian at the beginning of the piece is posited as this somewhat androgynous being. You get the sense that Dorian, ostensibly a male character, possesses androgynous characteristics within him, as well as bisexual tendencies, and that very much comes through having a female performer play the kind of drag element at the beginning. The further we move into the show, the more your conception of Dorian’s gender morphs. Your perception expands, you start to forget that you have a female performer playing a male character. By the time you hit the second part of the show, Dorian’s gender really expands beyond the binary.

In rehearsals, we started to use he, she and they pronouns for Dorian interchangeably, which we didn’t make a deliberate decision about. It emerged organically through the making of the work. He is both male and female, and neither. I’m really proud of that part of the show. I think that people of all genders can very much find themselves within Dorian, which is a rare thing in narrative experience. I think the elasticity of theatre allows us to do that.

I’m really interested in how this subversion of the camera and the gaze operates in the theatre space.

One of the key things we needed to crack in the production of Dorian Gray was the relationship to camera. We play with gaze in the production very actively, and we’ve got five huge LED screens out on the stage. Often we’re asking the audience – about 900 live audience members – to be engaging with the story through the screen. Then, on the turn of a dime, EJ can step out from behind something or move forward towards the audience; she suddenly breaks that observer relationship that the cinematic device in the production has set up.

The way that Sally Potter and Tilda Swinton play with that relationship between a kind of authorial voice, because Orlando’s narrating the story to you and the camera, is very similar to how EJ and I explore the relationship to camera in Dorian Gray. We constantly play with who’s in control. Often the observer is endowed with the power of watching, and [we were interested in] the way that we could subvert that, not only through the look to the camera but the way that the narrator could pull the camera in a certain direction. All of this stems from the influence of Orlando.

There’s something powerful about these processes of transformation, both in Orlando and The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The core experience that Wilde expresses in his novel is also the relationship that one has with oneself. His representation of interior life is focused on a dialogue between the individual and themselves, and he’s found a physical manifestation of that in the portrait. The portrait and Dorian can’t talk to each other necessarily, but the portrait is talking to Dorian. It’s almost as if Wilde saw the rise of capitalism happening around him and captured it in this story about a universe that celebrates youth, beauty and the primacy of the individual. These texts look at the tension between the authentic interior life of somebody and the exterior world that they inhabit. I think when I first saw Orlando, its story about the possibility of metamorphosis resonated very deeply with me.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 19, 2022 as "Kip Williams".

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Maddee Clark is a Yugambeh writer and editor.

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