Theatre Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray (Sydney Theatre Company) ★★★★

Eryn Jean Norvill owns the stages in Sydney Theatre Company’s endlessly inventive adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, turning the tale of narcissism and vice into a one-woman, multimedia spectacular. 

Norvill portrays all 26 characters in the show. Dragging up in various guises to play everyone from the titular young male beauty, Dorian Gray, his older mentors Basil Hallward and Lord Henry Wotton, and everyone in between. That in itself makes for a marathon of acting which is only more fascinating when the extra technical layers are added.

While she may officially be the only actor on stage, she is in no way the only performer, as a crew of camera-operators, costumers, make-up artists & stage hands swarm around her facilitating a number costume quick-changes as she jumps between various different characters. She is aided by a series of digital screens that show pre-recorded segments allowing her to interact with other characters. It’s a complex dance of art and technology as Norvill must hit her marks, both physically and verbally, to keep the show moving seamlessly. 

The Picture of Dorian Gray. Photo: Dan Boud.

You’d think these technical mechanics would sap the production of life, but The Picture of Dorian Gray is infused with an infectious fluidity and frenetic zeal. Norvill runs this 120 minute marathon with an abundance of energy – at the end she seems more recharged than tired.

Director Kip Williams (Artistic Director of the STC) has performed a conjurer’s trick by seemingly laying all the backstage mechanics bare. The technical work is in full view of the audience, who divide their time looking directly at the action on stage, and the various screens that move above. This apparent transparency elicits a blend of shock and glee from the audience as the action on screen starts to differ from that on stage… layer-by-layer Williams adds new tricks to the production.

The Picture of Dorian Gray. Photo: Dan Boud.

Augmented Reality filters bring real-time transformations to the screen, allowing Norvill to jump from grizzled male sailor to long-haired crone with the flip of her head. Glossy, de-aging filters demonstrate the difference between the ageless Dorian and his soul-revealing portrait. The pursuit of social media perfection is skewered with a wry passing assault.

Williams directs this dance with a showman’s eye. As the action unfolds this production leaps from comedy to drama to camp to spectacle while barely batting an eyelid. It has the inventiveness of a Michel Gondry music video; a one-take wonder that requires everyone involved to be at the top of their game. There are the odd slip-ups, this is live theatre after all. A technical mishap with a frozen mobile phone created tensions, causing Norvill to fudge a cue and the odd mistimed piece of dialogue clashed with the pre-recorded segments.

But, what is Wilde’s once-controversial tale when stripped of its overt queerness? This production takes the focus away from “gay vanity” and opens the story up wider. The gender-flipped casting itself does little to illuminate the text (I was expecting some form of commentary on gender, but there was none to found), but it does allow the production to move past the established tropes of the narrative and deliver it fresh. Treating homosexuality as a taboo would have felt dated and pointless in modern Australia, so instead Dorian is an example of what happens when you are striped of all public accountability. You know, it’s what your browser history looks like…

That’s not to say this show is somehow ‘straight-washed’. Norvill stands as a drag-king on stage, bursting out into a show-tune lip-sync in a moment of ecstasy (though it was noted that her lip-sync was sloppy – if this was Drag Race she’d likely be sashaying away). Disco beats infuse the decadence. At one point Norvill breaks the fourth wall as she casually throws a handful of confetti in the air – everything about production is a twist on Sydney’s well-worn version of drag.

Sydney Theatre Company has come out of the post-Covid gate at a furious pace (the previous show, Wannagatta, starring Hugo Weaving and Wayne Blair, was also brilliant). With this level of imagination and scope I’m excited to see what their 2021 season will bring.

The Picture of Dorian Gray runs until January 9th 2021 at the Roslyn Packer Theatre in Sydney. The first part of Sydney Theatre Company’s 2021 season is on sale now (including the Australian premiere of the Tony-winning musical Fun Home). Get tickets and more information from their website.

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