The Picture of Dorian Gray is spectacular, yet somehow never succumbs to the seductions of spectacle, says Alison Croggon
It’s commonly said that western society is in an age of narcissism, an age in which the solipsistic self – at once inflated and atomised by the endless reflections of social media – dominates our political and social lives. The neo-liberalised individual has been transformed into a brand: a consumable, alienated object that is all surfaces.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Oscar Wilde, whose art exploited the glittering surface more deftly than almost any other writer, remains so popular. The best productions of his plays elevate the motion of his thought into perfectly conscious performance in which the audience is implicated as much as the actor. His plays aren’t interested in the psychology of character so much as its aesthetic: his characters are never not performing, never not observing themselves. It’s why these plays are so funny; it’s only afterwards that you start questioning their implications.
However, the best staging I’ve seen of Wilde’s theatricalisation of the self turns out not to be a play at all, but an adaptation of his single novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. The Sydney Theatre Company’s production – adapted by director Kip Williams with actor Eryn Jean Norvill as dramaturg – is every bit as impressive as word of mouth and a succession of dazzled critics claim. It’s astounding theatre, worth every cent of the plane tickets and hotel I impulsively and expensively booked from Melbourne when I decided I couldn’t bear to miss it.
After a year of dark stages, it’s a triumphant return for the STC – a reminder, after months of exile from the particular collaborative intimacy of live performance, of what theatre can be. The magic is real: it’s not a superficial deception or pretence, but rather an enchantment that emerges when, as audience members, we are conscious that the realities of the compelling illusions before us are created by our imaginations as actively as by those on stage. To weave this spell takes nerve, skill, intelligence and – perhaps most of all – a tangible, cohering passion. And we get all of those in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
At the centre is, of course, Norvill’s extraordinary performance. She plays all 26 characters, from Dorian Gray himself, to secondary personae such as the painter Basil Hallward and the fascinating and corrupt Lord Henry Wotton, to incidental caricatures. The show is constructed around her abilities, designed to show everything she can do, in ever more surprising constructions. Over two hours of suspended time, Norvill transforms constantly: there are six of her on stage, then one, then three; now she is arguing with herself about whose turn it is to say the lines; now she is a head in a tiny puppet theatre; now she is plunging through a melodramatic nightmare; now she is just an actor, telling us a story.
This could have easily been an impressive virtuoso turn, a showcase for us to admire this actor’s abilities. Even that would have been dazzling. But the real triumph is how it is so much more than that: the skills on such elaborate show are never gratuitous, never present for any reason except for their necessity in creating the story’s larger meanings. When I thought it over afterwards, I was astonished at the athletic feat; but while I was there, I was completely absorbed in the story, in its moral terror and cruelties, in the emotional truthfulness that flamed out of so much artifice.
Norvill isn’t alone on stage, even though she appears to be its entire population. Around her, in plain sight in Marg Horwell’s mobile design, a complex choreography of camera technicians, makeup artists, stage hands and costumiers transforms the stage; they film her live, change her costumes and makeup, and wheel sets on and off. Out of sight are yet more people, who co-ordinate the various projection screens that are in constant motion, the sound (by Clemence Williams), the video (by David Bergman), the lights (by Nick Schlieper). It’s a production of stupefying complexity that comes together in performance with the ease of apparent naturalness. It’s rare to see ensemble work that achieves this unity of intention, even in shows much less complex than this one.
The credit for this formidable feat of co-ordination goes to Kip Williams, whose direction manages to be both extraordinarily showy and strangely self-effacing. (This could be said about every aspect of the production, including the performance). The concept – using huge video projections as frames for live and pre-recorded footage which actively interact with the live performance – also embodies the story’s meaning, the dislocation of Dorian Gray from himself through the medium of his own portrait. The image and its frame is the primary metaphor, danced through dizzying variations.
We begin with a stage, utterly bare except for the huge screen standing forestage, and an actor walking in with three camera operators. She begins the story in the third person, as it is written: the omniscient eye of the narrator is as present as every other character. When she performs the opening dialogue between Wotton and Hallward – the artist who has just finished his sublime portrait of a beautiful young man – she differentiates between the two characters with the simple trick of turning her face. We see this in close up: Norvill herself is back stage, teasingly behind the screen.
This initial trick sets the conceit that we willingly follow for the rest of the show, as the selves of Norvill multiply across screens that rise and fall, or sweep in across the stage and vanish, as Norvill herself steps forward and back, her physical presence somehow dominating the production even when we can only glimpse her.
The Picture of Dorian Gray certainly features the most strikingly successful use of videoed imagery I’ve seen. Video can be perilous in theatre: as I said in the Australian Book Review, Williams’ 2015 production of Miss Julie demonstrated how video can empty out a stage, riveting our attention to the screen at the expense of the actors. Here the choreography of image and performer is managed with finesse and tact; every moment is considered, carefully poised to surprise us in some new way that – surprisingly, I think – resists the lure of spectacle. Although this is a spectacular production, it remains a show about spectacle, and avoids succumbing to its easy solutions.
This is because it’s actually chamber theatre. Despite everything that is going on around and through her, you are always conscious of Norvill first; she is the corporeal centre of the action, the voice and breath that holds us spellbound. In the single scene in which Dorian Gray is alone, the images vanish altogether. This is a turning point, the first time that he realises fully what he might have lost: and the loss of the images focuses us on Norvill-as-Gray in a moment of enormous emotional potency.
As Wilde said in his preface to this story, “All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril… It is the spectator, not life, that art really mirrors.” In this telling, Gray is the contemporary self who renders himself as an object, out of an unholy desire to retain forever his unblemished youth. By doing so, he deflects all consequence onto his image, and so sacrifices the possibilities of his own life.
Norvill is every face on stage, in a kind of nightmare narcissism; except that, as in real life, the bloated narcissistic self is supported by the frenetic work of many less visible others. There are obvious parallels to Hollywood celebrity or the influencer culture of social media in the perfected surface that becomes serially more and more alienated from its own reality, generating aspirations that can never be achieved, driving a constant, misdirected search for meaning. For Gray, it drives an increasingly frantic search for novel sensation which is very like the ravenous consumerism that characterises late capitalism.
The beauty of this show is how these meanings are suspended in Wilde’s unsentimental aesthetic and story; they’re drawn out by the production, but never clumsily foregrounded. It refuses a number of seductions: not only spectacle, but also the romanticised gloss of nostalgia that Wilde productions too often generate. For all its sumptuousness, it feels…austere. Maybe it’s this quality, more than any other, that makes it feel most Wildean.
The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde. Adapted and directed by Kip Williams, performer and dramaturg Eryn Jean Norvill. Designed by Marg Horwell, lighting design by Nick Schlieper, composition and sound design by Clemence Williams, video design by David Bergman. Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company. Until January 9. Sold out.