Reviews, News and Commentary

The Picture of Dorian Gray: A Festival Triumph

Reviewed by Malcolm Calder

Eryn Jean Norvill (Dorian Gray) with cameraman

Auckland Arts Festival 2023

The Picture of Dorian Gray

By Oscar Wilde

Adapted and directed by Kip Williams

Sydney Theatre Company

Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre, Aotea Centre

Until 25 March

Reviewed by Malcolm Calder

Kip Williams’ genre-bending multi-media production coupled with Eryn Jean Norvill’s exceptional performance result in The Picture of Dorian Gray delivering a truly momentous centrepiece to the 2023 Auckland Festival.

This production has unequivocally joined the fairly brief list of brilliantly conceived and delivered theatrical experiences I have been privileged to enjoy in my life.  I’m thinking Anthony Perkins in Peter Shaffer’s original Equus in New York, Jim Sharman’s original 1973 production of Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show upstairs at the Royal Court in London or Peter Brook’s all-night production of The Mahabharata in a quarry in Adelaide.  Although for different reasons, each explored new work, broke barriers and become something very special to me.

Now I have another to add.  Kip Williams.

He almost made my ‘special’ list a few years back with his treatment of Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui blending real-time imagery and live performance.  That was before he tackled Dorian Gray.

Much has been written about this production and hyperbolic superlatives abound. They are all true.  So let’s unpack them.

Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ was originally conceived as a novella for Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890.  His work of philosophical fiction was ostensibly a fairly straightforward parable about not being obsessed with youth and beauty, when it was really about being obsessed with youth and beauty.  Various editorial interventions occurred, new chapters were added or restored and it finally appeared as a complete novel the following year.  It was no accident that it became a ‘perverted novel’ in evidence during as the self-indulgent enfant terrible of the literary world’s well-known 1895 trial.  But it wasn’t until 2011 that these various edits, additions and deletions plus Wilde’s original were published in a single focus.

As Kip Williams himself has noted, Wilde’s work conceived a physical form about a dialogue with one’s interior.  In very simple terms, chief protagonist Basil Hallward paints a portrait of a beautiful young innocent : Dorian Gray.  The artwork is admired by many, particularly his acquaintance Lord Henry Wooton whose admiration may or may not extend beyond mere aesthetic appreciation.  Either way, Dorian Gray becomes admired, feted and a central feature in both their lives.   Hallward remains the deeply moral and abstracted artist with this painting as his masterpiece – and his fantasy.  Contrapuntally, ‘Harry’ Wooton is a self-indulgent roue, indulging in life of pleasure with no regard for consequences.

Fawned upon by Wooton, Gray himself becomes increasingly narcissistic over time.  Convinced of his own beauty, he believes the accolades heaped upon him and falls ever-further into a life of indulgence and pleasure before falling in love with an actress then spurning her.  And just as happens to all of us, as life’s vicissitudes mounted and his self-indulgent lifestyle took its toll, his youthful looks began to fade.  The original artwork eventually became a virtual pastiche of himself.  In Wilde’s novel however, Harwood still sees the youth he painted, while Wooton continues to accelerate that faux image’s degenerative process.  Wilde’s convoluted tale is a narrative of this process and is, of course, really about himself.  In fact, all three characters represent facets of the writer. 

But Wilde  is not regarded as a literary genius for nothing and there are many layers of relevance to both the original novel and to Kip Williams’s interpretation.  Perhaps none more so than when one accepts that technology allows anyone or everyone to mirror Wilde’s apotheosis with the swipe of an app.  Today’s selfie is an everyday thing, just as a sepia print once was.  Both capture an instant in time but that reality begins to change the instant the image was captured.  Thenceforth we can only look backwards remembering things as they were – or choose not to.  Back in the day, the traditional slide show of that ‘family holiday’ may have bored people witless but the images could not be changed – other than in the recollections of some who suffered a viewing.  However technology now enables the mind to function differently and the viewer can manipulate the original so enabling what one wants to see.   

It is almost as if the selfie and the tortuous process of the human mind are Williams’ inspiration and become the undercut to this outstanding production. More contemporaneous selfie-styling apps and a range of different filters enable the digital image to be tweaked, distorted and turned into what we wish – whereas that old sepia print could not.  So too, is reality twisted in today’s world by influencers who often draw heavy parallels to the impossible beauty found on social media and echo how this manufactured identity can mask a psychological trauma beneath.  Think images on Tinder. 

In conceiving Dorian Gray Williams piles instance on instance, distortion on distortion and truth on contrivance and keeping up with this can only be described as mind-bending.  We slip into it not with ease, but with acceptance.  I was intrigued to see Eryn Jean Norvill credited as not only dramaturg, but as Creative Associate as well.  So both share what appears on stage and the strength of Dorian Gray lies in this brilliant combination of their gifts.

As the solo performer, Norvill takes on every single character in the play — 26 according to diverse promotional sources, but I didn’t try to count and simply didn’t care.  Each was new.  Each was uniquely different.  And each was played by Eryn Jean Norvill in a tour de force that lasted two hours.  She interacts with them, they interact with her in an environment created purely by word and suggestion, and some evocatively thematic music by Clemence Williams.  There is a myriad of rapid and seamless costume transitions and the occasional simple prop – all achieved with ever more evocative closeups inside a video screen or frame of flowers both perhaps echoing the original painting.  Size and dimension also received attention when a room suddenly appears on stage, reducing and concentrating focus even further.  Layer by layer Williams adds new tricks to the production and, at one point Norvill even interacts with five other Norvills at the same time.

 It is a bravura performance and one of the finest I have seen in a long, long time.

However, her director is careful not to eclipse this brilliance with the constantly moving on-stage crew of about 10 who handle steadicams, other hand-helds and various fixed camera positions through a choreography that is so subtle they quickly become invisible to the audience.  Their images are all projected onto a network of about a dozen different-sized, flown screens that are as much a part of this production as the performer herself.  Although technically a single-hander this production actually a cast of about 15.  Or more.  Under the supervision of Charlie Kember and Benjamin Andrew, the cinematic blend with live action was memorable in itself.

Market realities make it very rare for us to have access to world theatre of this calibre and this scale. Auckland Festival is to be congratulated on its part in enabling New Zealand to see such brilliance here in Auckland.

Sometimes a night in the theatre can make all else pale into insignificance and impact one for a very long time. This was such an occasion.

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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