Adelaide Festival. Sydney Theatre Company. 14 Mar 2022
The empty stage, bar for a couple of camera tripods, the exposed stage flies… there is no indication of what is to come, and that is for the best. The scene by scene reveal of this production is to be tasted, savoured, swallowed and digested slowly as one of the great theatrical experiences.
Director Kip Williams has adapted Oscar Wide’s enduring novel for this two hour stage production, giving dialogue to the 26 odd characters – all of them played by Eryn Jean Norvill. The sheer range of the character portrayals undertaken by Norvill is staggering. There are no hurried changes behind screens here; the few changes that she makes onstage are in full view assisted by precise and unobtrusive dressers. But here is where the millennia old theatre crashes headlong into technology, producing the most remarkable result.
Williams has been working with live stage and video integration in previous productions but he has reached his apotheosis here. Norvill appears onstage as painter Basil Hallward, in conversation with Lord Henry Wotton. She is surrounded by hand held camera operators, projecting onto a huge screen. Changes of vocal timbre and astute switches of camera angle delineate the two characters. Suddenly, with a quick wig change, she is Dorian Gray, more screens appear, and she is everywhere: she is the narrator, the lord, the duchess. She is the seven guests at table at the lunch party; the desired actress playing Juliet in a marionette show; the wizened housekeeper Mrs Leaf.
The highly skilled camera operators make for seamless transitions from stage to screen, and for the most part, simultaneous live and recorded performances. Norvill stands on stage interacting with her video characters, and perfectly emulates her counterpart’s physical movements on screen. Video designer David Bergman has his team of operators perfectly positioned for maximum efficacy as Norvill changes character, with Nick Schlieper’s lighting design playing brilliant double duty to both stage and screen.
The mobile phone selfies, enhanced with Snapchat/Instagram filters, insert themselves into Victorian England as though they ever were, and the anachronisms are further muddied with Clemence William’s at times dramatic musical score (the clangourous dramatic chords as Dorian, then Basil, stare horrified at the ruined features of his portrait) is lightened by Donna Summer’s I Feel Love during his visit to the opium den.
The technical feats are never in danger of overshadowing the stagecraft: Norvill and Williams do not allow this. The focus constantly returns to the live stage actor, and this is never more so than in the forest scene, where a tragic Gray, being chased by the vengeful James Vane, tries to understand and articulate his fate.
Eryn Jean Norvill is a force to be reckoned with. The flick of an eyebrow can be everything. The turn of a head is a new character, a slight vocal inflection the difference between he/him and she/her. One can only guess at the gruelling nature of the rehearsals for this work; creating the 26 characters, perfecting the razor sharp interactive timing, hitting the camera marks for her filmed pieces, yet still constantly communicating with the audience with her onstage characters. For light relief (and there are a few such moments) she as Narrator argues with herself as Dorian about who will continue to tell the story; such moments were a temporary reprieve for an audience who seemed to hold its collective breath throughout much of this two hours. Such silence!
By performance end we were exhausted, and superbly sated. Our senses had been filled and stilled as we understood we had been in the presence of something magnificent. A performance with which to measure others to come, to memorialise, to reflect upon. The standing ovation was the least we could give her.
When: Until 20 March
Where: Her Majesty’s Theatre