In recent years, the artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company, Kip Williams, has deftly explored an intersection between the cinematic and theatrical, creating productions on the bleeding edge of stagecraft that bridge the liminal space between these two modes of storytelling.
In 2016, his treatment of Strindberg’s shocking tale of lust, femininity and power, Miss Julie, was a pathfinder of sorts, trialling the technical wizardry required to fuse real-time video and live performance. In 2019, he pushed the experiment further still, with a thrilling film noir take on Brecht's anti-fascist parable The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Indeed, that show was so jaw-droppingly sophisticated, it seemed Williams had mined all he could from this interplay of media. However, with his audaciously complex treatment of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, he has surpassed his own benchmark once more. Spectacularly so.
Whereas in previous productions, the theatrical action was amplified or juxtaposed by filmed elements, here the cinematic aspects play a far richer part in the world-building. There is just one solitary performer on stage, Eryn Jean Norvill, who hopscotches between all 26 characters found in this gothic classic, as well as handling the third-person narration. Norvill is an actor of extraordinary skill, but bringing this narrative to life unaided would be a challenge for any solo performer. And yet, in concert with a team of roving camera operators, a network of vast suspended screens, and a wildly ambitious intermingling of real-time and pre-recorded video, Norvill produces some of the most virtuosic theatre I have ever witnessed, on stage or screen.
Not only must she create distinctive characterisations for a multitude of roles, but these must be delivered with near-perfect precision in tandem with the layers of technology at work. Norvill must keep in her mind the world of Wilde’s imagination but also that of Williams’, as she becomes a vessel for both visions. She must also stay acutely aware of the stage, as cameras and crew encircle her, and the audience, whose attentions she must hold both in the flesh and through the lens. Wilde’s writing is verbose and indulgent in its wordplay, but this too must remain vibrant and alert in Norvill’s mind. It’s a herculean feat Williams tasks her with, yet Norvill makes it appear effortless, as if every surprising moment, every directorial sleight of hand is an inevitability.
Science fiction writer and futurist Arthur C Clarke famously coined the phrase, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, and there are many moments in this production where this rings true. Norvill multiplies, shapeshifts, and appears from several angles simultaneously as she flits between characters. There are moments when this conjuring trick is so uncanny that the audience gasps or giggles with delight, not at the whimsy of Wilde’s florid prose but because it is all so marvellously inexplicable. However, Williams is careful not to eclipse either Wilde or Norvill with bells and whistles. The cinematic elements are woven so intrinsically into this production that they become as much a part of this play’s essence as her performance.
Nor does Williams allow technology to obscure his other collaborators. Marg Horwell’s minimal sets subliminally mirror Gray’s veneer of unchanging youth with huge bouquets of unnaturally vivid flowers – superficially beautiful yet utterly divorced from nature. Clemence Williams creates a soundworld of anachronisms that by turns evoke aristocratic pomp and clubland abandon. The powerful use of SnapChat filters and other selfie-style shots draw heavy parallels to the impossible beauty standards of social media influencers and how this curated identity can be the painted rust concealing psychological trauma beneath. This production is not just a technical tour de force, but also a searingly relevant commentary on how contemporary culture warps and distorts self-image and self-worth.
If Williams' Dorian Gray has a shortcoming, it’s that the taboo of queer desire, an essential part of Wilde’s writing, is occasionally underplayed or skirted over. But it’s hard to find fault with a show that manages to say so much, and with such an innovative voice, as helmed by a performance that will surely be remembered as one of the greatest ever seen on an Australian stage.