Friday, April 1, 2022

The Picture of Dorian Gray


The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, adapted and directed by Kip Williams.  Sydney Theatre Company at Roslyn Packer Theatre, March 28 – May 7, 2022.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 31

Eryn Jean Norvill as Dorian Gray
in the garden of the artist, Basil Hallward, in Chapter 1
of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
perhaps when he was painting the portrait


Performed by Eryn Jean Norvill

Alternate Performer – Nikki Shiels

Adapter & Director – Kip Williams
Designer – Marg Horwell
Lighting Designer – Nick Schlieper
Composer & Sound Designer – Clemence Williams
Video Designer – David Bergman
Dramaturg & Creative Associate – Eryn Jean Norvill
Production Dramaturg – Paige Rattray
Assistant Director – Ian Michael
Original Voice & Text Coach – Danielle Roffe
Additional Voice & Text Coach – Leith McPherson

A backstage, often on stage, crew of  26 in stage managing, wardrobe, lighting, sound, video, and staging.

Photos by Daniel Boud

Eryn Jean Norvill as the story teller
in The Picture of Dorian Gray

Sydney Theatre Company has outdone itself in Kip William’s extraordinary, excitingly modern, adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray.  The story, virtually verbatim from Oscar Wilde’s late 19th Century novel, is told by an amazingly adaptable Eryn Jean Norvill in living video combining social media artificial intelligence tech with unfiltered acting before our very eyes.

To appreciate this theatrical innovation, here is what Wilde’s text explains about the history of art.

“The first [stage] is the appearance of a new medium for art, and the second is the appearance of a new personality for art also. What the invention of oil-painting was to the Venetians, the face of Antinous was to late Greek sculpture, and the face of Dorian Gray will some day be to me.”  This is Basil Hallward, the painter of the picture of Dorian Gray, speaking to Lord Henry Wotton, Chapter 1. “It [the woodland landscape he would not sell] is one of the best things I have ever done. And why is it so? Because, while I was painting it, Dorian Gray sat beside me. Some subtle influence passed from him to me, and for the first time in my life I saw in the plain woodland the wonder I had always looked for and always missed.”

As a young man myself, it was Oscar Wilde beside me that opened up “the wonder”, as Basil says, of “an entirely new mode of style. I see things differently, I think of them differently.”  It made me become my kind of teacher.

His next response to Lord Henry’s “Then why won’t you exhibit [Dorian Gray’s] portrait?” explains: “An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them. We live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography. We have lost the abstract sense of beauty. Some day I will show the world what it is; and for that reason the world shall never see my portrait of Dorian Gray.”  This idea defined for me my role as an ‘enabler’ in the teaching art, not an ‘instructor’.

It is inevitable, I guess, that some would see what Oscar Wilde is writing about is homosexual love, (explored explicitly in a recent work by Canberra playwright  David Atfield, Chiaroscuro, where he imagines that Michelangelo Merisi (Michele Angelo Merigi or Amerighi) da Caravaggio may have been homosexual [reviewed on this blog November 25, 2021].  

Yet it was Wilde’s Preface to his novel, about the nature of arts criticism that became the focus of my interest – though right now I may have fallen into his trap: “…the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.”  But it is the impact on each of us, personally, that makes both the original novel, published 20 July 1890, and Williams’ stage adaptation which premiered in Covid-19 times, 28 November 2020, of such great significance.

Filtered selfie - Eryn Jean Norvill

Eryn Jean Norvill as "Juliet"

Eryn Jean Norvill as beautiful but self-centred Dorian Gray

Eryn Jean Norvill as adult Dorian Gray

Eryn Jean Norvill becomes the best teacher imaginable in this “entirely new mode of style” conceived by Sydney Theatre Company’s artistic director Kip Williams, designed by Marg Horwell with Norvill not only as performer but also as dramaturg and creative associate. The essential art of theatre is to tell stories.  Norvill is re-telling Oscar Wilde’s morality tale of The Picture of Dorian Gray as a teacher would to children, or rather as she would to today’s “young adults”, say 16 - 24.  There were many of them in the audience last night, ready to instantly cheer their teacher on.

Weirdly the biggest cheer came when the show had to be stopped for some ten minutes because the complexities of linking all the live and recorded video had got out of sync.  The young ones cheered when it stopped and cheered massively as Norvill reappeared – recorded on video, or was she live?  It was often hard to know the difference.

That question of how do we know what reality is in an Instagram world is the essence of this new mode.  Kip Williams, of course, has been working towards exploring live video for some years now, with his greatest success previously, in my view, in Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer – not surprisingly with Eryn Jean Norvill as Catherine Holly  [see my February 2015 review at ].  This was one reason I was determined, after four Covid-19 ruined attempts, to see her work again.

The conceit, an old-fashioned literary term for device, thought up by Oscar Wilde, is to imagine one’s picture taken in one’s beautiful youth giving one Dorian Gray the freedom to remain forever the self-centred monster that a teenager can be while only his picture grows old.  It leads, of course, to social disaster as Dorian has no compunction about promising love and marriage to an attractive actress, but then rejecting her in no uncertain terms because she “can’t act” (Juliet in Shakespeare’s play).  She commits suicide and her brother pursues Gray to kill him.  By his late 30s Gray has killed the artist, Basil Hallward, killed the brother and destroyed the painting in a state of mental collapse.

Of course, when reading the novel, you never see the picture, just as Basil said you wouldn’t.  On stage the show is full of pictures as Eryn tells her story, taking on all the roles – even including apparently herself as the story-writer himself – but we still never see the painting.  That is the measure of the originality in this theatrical work of art – that the actor never reveals herself to us: “An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them.”

Eryn Jean Norvill as Dorian Gray when young

But what this Picture of Dorian Gray shows is how ugly his picture becomes, because of never growing up out of self-indulgence, having no compunction about being “honest” without any sense of the consequences for other people’s feelings.  His “honesty” makes him dictatorial – and finally self-destructive as well as creating ruination all around.

It’s at this point that suddenly the message coming home to us after 130 years from Oscar Wilde – the man who was jailed for being gay – is how the belief in one’s own “freedom” from constraint, if never moderated by understanding and empathy, makes civilised life impossible.  And we see this being played out at this very moment, all the way from Covid-19 conspiracies against reasonable government to the invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin.

And so, as Basil Hallward the artist hopes in Chapter 1, “the face of Dorian Gray will some day be to me”, what it has now become for all the creative team at Sydney Theatre Company: the work of art which makes us “see things differently” and  “think of them differently.”

And I noticed at the end, as the last picture of Eryn Jean Norvill as Dorian Gray switched off and the theatre went black, there was that silent pause before a kind of measured applause that says to me that people knew they had seen and valued a great work of art.  Here was “the wonder I had always looked for and always missed.”