Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray at Roslyn Packer

Review By: Carly Fisher


Eight months later and FINALLY, hello theatre and welcome back! For someone used to spending multiple nights a week either creating theatre myself or reviewing the spectacular works on around Sydney stages, eight months has felt impossibly long! And though the return to being a member of the audience feels very different to the world of being an audience member we left behind in March (marked with masks, seats between each group of audience members and the absence of any foyer activity including mingling, box office, coat check and snack stands), it is nonetheless exceptionally good to be back!


How fortunate I was to mark my return to the theatre with Sydney Theatre Company’s opening of The Picture of Dorian Gray, adapted from the Oscar Wilde classic by STC Artistic Director, Kip Williams. This unique interpretation of the text turns what is a story riddled with characters into a one woman show. Taking on more than 25 characters (by my approximate calculation during the show) is Eryn Jean Norvill who delivers the performance of a lifetime by thriving in what can only be described as an incredibly tough role. STC audiences will remember Norvill from Suddenly Last Summer, Romeo and Juliet and Cyrano de Bergerac, and now have the joy to watch her give a performance so fresh and intuitive that you’d be forgiven for assuming there are many on stage.


But instead of the comfort of co-stars, the only ‘many’ that fill the stage are the multiple screens showing a live feed of Norvill from every angle. This performance is one that requires her to bare all, with extreme close ups and cameras angled all around each movement, Norvill has nowhere to hide on the very spacious Roslyn Packer Theatre stage.


This technique of using live feeds and screens to blur the line of theatre and film is one that Kip Williams has certainly favoured and used in multiple of the shows that he has directed to date. This time, I was torn by the presence of the screens. On the one hand, I thought that this production of The Picture of Dorian Gray was unique, modern, timely and, though straying perhaps a little far from the intentions and comments of the original text, extremely well done. This time, Norvill’s performance won me over when, in all honesty, I sat down in the audience, looked at the screens and bare stage and went ‘oh...again.’


Though I feel that this technique is getting a little overused by Williams, my main apprehension to the screens lay simply in the fact that my first night back at the theatre would be just like the months of watching live recordings of shows on my TV at home throughout the Covid-19 theatre closure period. My excitement of FINALLY getting to see live theatre again was unquestionably halted by the visual of more screens…truly, few of us out there need MORE screen time this year. However, to give well deserved credit to the crafty tech team, headed by David Bergman (video designer), the high quality pictorial displays and clever camera angling, along with Norvill’s captivating performance, eventually saw my resistance dissipate.


Overall, I thought that this performance was a great return to the theatre and exceptionally high quality. It is very obvious from start to end that no expense has been spared in the creation of this production, especially in the stunning design elements from the exceptionally creative brain of production designer, Marg Horwell. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the very beautiful designs is how different they look on stage and then on screen. This has obviously been done intentionally and is supported by clever camera angles that often offer humour as the audience sees their own live version of ‘instagram vs. reality.’ The design tracks the story perfectly offering such variety between the dark moments in Dorian’s life, and the overly colourful, each design providing not just support but total representation for the moment in the narrative.


Clemence Williams has composed and designed a very interesting score and soundscape for this production, offering the same representation for the point we are up to in Dorian’s life as the design, but intensifying the moments of eeriness, of celebration and of total bewilderment.


So with Norvill offering such a nuanced performance, and the quality of design between both creative and of spectacular standards, why did I still walk out questioning if I had LOVED it or just liked it? Ultimately, this is what I have concluded on my thoughts...I loved the production elements, namely the talent displayed by Norvill, who on opening night had only a few mistakes in a complicated, wordy and highly demanding performance. I loved the bright flowers, the Brechtian style participation of the cameraman participating in the show, the moments where camera angles added such humour to the production and the overall concept of the show.


However, I felt that many moments that Williams has obviously included in his direction in an attempt to ‘shock’ the audience were predictable and unnecessary - particularly the random song in the middle which just felt jarring rather than shocking, and the overplay of the ‘vanity of social media’ to a point beyond reality. More than this though, the text felt that in many ways it had moved away from Wilde’s intentions of a comment on classism and into a comment on extreme vanity, particularly by the younger generation of today who over-edit and over-use social media. Though the concept of the modernisation and contextualisation of this piece made sense, the extremity of the vanity undermined the intelligent comment intended.


I am a big fan of Kip Williams’. I think that he has proven he has unique ideas and enough of a sense of risk and play to make them happen. I think that he has brought a lot to the Sydney stage already and he has undeniably many, many more years of works to deliver. However, I would now like to see more variety in his design of his shows...we know he creates wonderful works with screens, we know how striking it looks when tree trunks cascade from the ceiling (we saw the same thing with the roses in Arturo Ui) and we know that the random moments of song and dance are there to shock our systems. Now it's time for more...and then return to this because it does all work, it is all beautiful, I just feel that there needs to be a break to see something else first so that we, as an audience, can once again be excited about this techniques and Williams’ creativity in bringing them to STC in the first place.


Ultimately though, I felt that this was a great way to return to the theatre and a performance that I was glad to see and, more importantly, would definitely recommend. It may not be for those looking for a classic rendition of this text, but it is certainly there for the rest of us and now that the audience capacity has been increased by the government, you would be wise to quickly try and snatch up a ticket...I am sure that they won’t last long!

This moment was one of the most creative uses of screens on stage I have seen to date - absolutely loved it. Congratulations Kip Williams and David Bergman on this achievement.


Photo Credit: Dan Boud