EJ Norvill claims the stage in The Picture of Dorian Gray

EJ Norvill as Dorian Gray (live) and Sir Henry Wotton (on screen). Photo: Daniel Boud/Sydney Theatre Company.

Sunny Grace reviews the hottest theatre ticket in town: the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Last week, I received a text from a friend saying she had a spare ticket to the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Picture of Dorian Gray. With five star reviews in many publications and with reducing seating capacity at the Roslyn Packer Theatre due to social distancing, this is a hot ticket.

I arrive at the theatre excited to be back for the first time since Covid and to see a play of a novel I read as a teen. At the front door of the theatre I am met with the QR code and two Covid marshalls bearing masks and sanitiser. One of the marshalls praises me for my lack of hesitation in checking in without her even requesting. Apparently, I am a rare breed in doing so. This surprises me as it seems de riguer everywhere in Sydney now. I wonder what types are coming to this show. Have they not left the house since March with this their first foray into the new world? Or is it because people feel Covid is over?

Inside the foyer, much has changed since last time I was there. Screens surround the box office like tellers in a bank. The bars are closed, making for a very sober affair. Everyone is wearing a compulsory mask, which combined with theatre finery reminds me of all those scenes in the movies when characters have to rush to a hospital for surgery or an early childbirth. It is quite surreal en masse. Once inside the theatre itself, every few seats are bound with sashes in order to keep the social distance. It feels strange to sit alone with an empty seat between me and my friends. Although I have to say, I do like having some space. Theatre seats tend to be even narrower than aeroplanes and the plays longer than some international flights. Often with no interval these days.

The women I have attended the play with are old friends; my friend and her daughter, who was a flower girl at my wedding and is now twenty-five. My friend is a jewellery designer and her daughter an actor. Afterwards we compare our thoughts. Mine are to do with the modern interpretation of Wilde’s words and the use of film technology. For my friend, it is the sumptuous design and colours of the sets and costumes she finds enamouring and for her daughter it is the acting; the performance of Eryn Jean Norvill.

Norvill is a tour de force. This is a huge role. She is on stage the entire two hours (yes, no interval) and plays every role. It’s ambitious and there are hiccups. Mostly due to the technological difficulty of the production. It is a choreography of screens, operators dressed in black and the many faces of Norvill. The audience is privy to the machinations of the production itself laying bare the artifice of the art, as camera operators and stage hands waltz across the stage following Norvill in order to transform her into other characters or cleverly project her across herself, next to herself. There is so much room for error. There is also the sheer amount of words she has to remember. 

It is not a subtle production by any means but Wilde wasn’t known for subtlety. It is clever in its comparisons with the narcissism and desire for youth of our modern society. In the age of the Influencer, the use of Instagram filters and references to augmentation and surgery are not surprising, yet they are effective. Especially when combined with Wilde’s words such as Lord Wootton’s statement: “There is no such thing as a good influence, Mr Gray. All influence is immoral – immoral from the scientific point of view.” As well as: “Because to influence a person is to give one’s own soul.”

The pace is so fast at times, I feel like it is on fast forward. Sometimes, I want it to slow down a moment so I can spend some time with the characters. But there is one scene that stayed with me long after the darkness descended and the standing ovation was over. As Dorian Gray, Norvill lifts the skirts of a puppet version of actress Sybil Vane, and fumbles around underneath her clothing, in what could be perceived as a touching up of the puppet. All the while, Norvill, as Gray, breaks the fourth wall, eyes down the barrel of a camera, projected ten times their size on a screen hanging above the stage. It is an ironic, fleeting and yet powerful meta moment, where it feels to me like she has reclaimed the very stage where she was allegedly harassed and the incident made public without her consent. I hear a few other people exhale audibly and I want to stand and applaud her bravery.  

It is brave theatre and Kip Williams must be commended for his direction and vision. But my most vigorous applause is for Norvill’s compelling, convincing and ambitious performance that puts her on a par with any of the greats that have walked those same boards at the STC. Long may she reign.

The Sydney Theatre Company production of The Picture of Dorian Gray plays the Roslyn Packer Theatre, 22 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay until Saturday, 9 January, 2021. Tickets ($45-$110 plus transaction fees) are available at www.sydneytheatre.com.au/whats-on/productions/2020/The-Picture-of-Dorian-Gray.

Sunny Grace is a Sydney writer, producer and director. Her website is located at sunnygrace.com.au.

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