There are always shows that you regret missing. Do not make the Sydney Theatre Company’s The Picture of Dorian Gray one of them. It opened in Melbourne as part of the Rising festival with all the hype of critical acclaim and sold-out seasons. This time, believe the excitement.
It’s a technical marvel that incorporates recorded characters and scenes on multiple moving screens without ever losing the intimacy of live theatre and offering so many unexpected explosions of theatrical and emotional delight that it’s easy to forget how the technology supports the performance.
The young and beautiful Dorian Gray makes a spontaneous devilish wish to always look young by popping his soul into a painting that ages and bears the consequences of Dorian’s behaviour.
Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novella is ostensibly a parable about not being obsessed with youth and beauty. But would any of us take any notice of this warning of we were given the same opportunity? Or even resist the false attention of someone so beautiful?
Directed and adapted by Kip Williams, it captures Wilde’s bitter wit, his world of Victorian Gothic repressed desire and his not-so subtle subtext of sexual longing, high-camp humour and excessive indulgence.
Oh, to have a perfect portrait or a perfect selfie. One that captures the elusive angle where we have a straight jawline and a smile that makes strangers want to kiss us. One that captures how we imagine that we look.
Artist Basil Hallward paints a portrait of his friend Dorian Gray that’s so good that his new friend, Lord Henry Wotton, convinces Dorian that anything other than that perfection isn’t worth it.
The exquisite and complex design by Marg Horwell is themed with fake flowers that never lose their beauty, but it’s really about portraits and how we frame ourselves to be seen. Portraits hang on walls and the film screens are in portrait orientation.
The characters are always dressed ready be painted in slightly over-the top looks that are as much Victorian excess as Met Gala, and most pose like the images that they would approve on Facebook or Grindr.
Underpinning the story of Dorian living his consequence-free life is an exploration of our ongoing obsession with manipulating how we look on and off screens. A smart phone can instantly fade our wrinkles or make us look like a cat. The Dorians of Instagram and Tik Tok can be paid to look like cursed portraits.
There’s a story in our news this week about people left disfigured and in constant pain after expensive surgical procedures to lifts their faces or bum cheeks.
We know looks are superficial and know the consequences of trying to change them, but how many of us still want to look like that glimpse of perfection we once saw? How many of us think our lives would be better if we didn’t look like ourselves?
Every element of The Picture of Dorian Gray is glittering and exceptional theatre, but all are there to support Eryn Jean Norvill.
She plays 26 characters – live and pre-recorded. As she interacts with herself, the audience and the incredible on-stage crew and camera operators, there’s no hiding how the images are created – except when it’s so surprising that it’s easy to forget that it is only one actor.
Her performance is so technical and choreographed that it’s tempting to watch how she moves and works with the crew and technology, but her masterclass in performance becomes invisible because her characters are so detailed and complete.
And all of the characters reflect so much about imbalances in power around gender, money, class and fame and how this power interacts with looks, gender, sexuality and desire.
Dorian’s story is well-known, but The Picture of Dorian Gray is about every one of us who have been obsessed, misled or blinded by the artifice of beauty, wealth or talent.
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Playhouse – Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Performance: Wednesday 8 June 2022
Season continues to 31 July 2022
Information and Bookings: www.artscentremelbourne.com.au
Image: Eryn Jean Norvill stars in The Picture of Dorian Gray – photo by Daniel Boud
Review: Anne-Marie Peard