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Review – Sydney Theatre Company’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

The play effortlessly explores the Gothic obsession with the self for a modern context, leaving audiences in awe and contemplating the unanswerable questions that Wilde asked over a century ago.

It might seem a tired idea to value a production based on the way that it brings the concerns of another era to life. However, the merit of the Sydney Theatre Company’s recent production of The Picture of Dorian Gray lies not only in this transformation, but also in its exposure of how truly universal those concerns are.

As one of the STC’s few recent live productions in the wake of COVID-19, Oscar Wilde’s only novel is granted, by director Kip Williams, a creativity that Wilde could not have imagined. Through innovative directing and the brilliance of sole actor Eryn Jean Norvill, the uncomfortable truth we bury within ourselves undoubtedly comes to the fore, leaving audiences contemplating the question: do we have any control over our intrinsic desire to maintain the self?

The performance begins with a sparse set, a single screen and a film crew circling Norvill as her face is projected on a large screen above a bare stage. One may be forgiven for initially thinking this Brechtian staging is a far cry from the richness of Wilde’s written flamboyance, and the directorial innovation that Williams has partly come to be admired for. However, it is Williams’ initial subtlety that gradually exposes Wilde’s poignant obsession with the human condition, developing into an explosive, colourful and technological pastiche that explores the process of ageing, gender and self-performance.

As Norvill glances at the audience through different cameras, we are greeted by entirely different personas. Whether as Lord Henry, Basil, Dorian Gray himself or the myriad of Wilde’s other characters, Norvill’s excellent shifts in body language, pace and use of symbolic props — such as a paintbrush to symbolise a transition into the character of the artist, Basil Hallward — are engrossing methods of character transformation. In a truly contemporary style, costume changes are sparing. Still, each reflects Wilde’s flamboyant style: with elaborate dressing gowns occasionally swapped for a multi-coloured suit to signal Norvill’s embodiment of Lord Henry. Thus, whilst gender-blind casting is not as groundbreaking a trope as it was several decades ago, Norvill, in partnership with the clever costuming and use of symbols, undoubtedly serves to further Wilde’s preoccupation with nonconformity to express the disintegration of traditional social roles.

The performative nature of the self and existence of multiple selves could have been no better explored than by Williams’ inclusion of multiple moving screens; our main vehicle for viewing much of the performance. A cacophony of portraiture is beamed above the head of whichever Wildean character has appeared before us, with a floral theme at times arousing humour, and others suggesting the terror of not being able to actually know oneself. The Gothic preoccupation with beauty and youth is transformed before our eyes as Wilde’s iconic opium den is transformed into a pumping nightclub, shown only through a heavily filtered Snapchat live-stream.

Within established theatre, it is easy to dismiss the trope of the selfie as symbolic of narcissistic millennial culture as a trite, easy representation. This would not do justice to the considered use of digital media throughout the performance, as the filters Dorian Gray chooses grow more distorted and inhuman; more akin to the crazed standard of beauty that the character comes to uphold. The intersection between live-streamed video and viewable acting is also notably engaging, as at times, the live Norvill will interact with pre-recorded videos of herself as other characters, to both comic and (later) sinister effect. Tree trunks descend from above as Williams’ staging innovation is made even more apparent, and we descend with Gray into a forest. 

As self-indulgence iconically gives way to the distinctly Gothic fear of death and self-preservation, we are at times serenaded by an ominous, orchestral soundtrack, only to be met by the familiar club hits of Donna Summer in other scenes. The communal preoccupation with youth is poignantly expressed by a combination of the aforementioned elements, as the staging compliments Norvill’s character transformations, and her morbid use of the selfie filter complements the Wildean Gothic costumes.

Notably, Williams’ use of technology does not lose touch with the intentions of Wilde’s text. Such is largely maintained by Norvill’s impeccable diction and the script’s authenticity to Wilde’s original work. While Norvill’s occasional line slip-up might detract from the engagement other plays may deliver, they ultimately add to the passion and mental anguish experienced by Wilde’s protagonist, drawing us in to a near-obsessive level, akin to the fascination that a certain man we come to know has for a portrait of himself.

It will be interesting to see whether projections and videography will become a more prominent mainstay in theatre in the decade to come. Regardless, Williams’ painting of Dorian Gray is a picture this viewer is sure to remember.

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