Reflecting on Dorian

Promotional image: Sydney Theatre Company.

The picture of Dorian Gray: Based on the novella by Oscar Wilde, adapted and directed by Kip Williams for the Sydney Theatre Company at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, performed by Eryn Jean Norvill.

This production had been receiving rave reviews (R!R!R!) for several weeks before I got to see it just before Christmas. Sometimes the buzz around a piece of theatre raises expectations too high, but this show surprised and delighted me more than I had anticipated.

Oscar Wilde’s novella was a kind of gothic horror story kitted out in the naughty wit and purple prose of Victorian Aestheticism. At times highly amusing, its moral charge derives from the oppressive morality that it purports to overthrow but actually embraces. We meet Dorian Gray as an innocent young man who is both beautiful and good. He is corrupted by an aesthete (Lord Henry Wotton) whose attraction to Dorian is implicitly sexual. The text mines the opposition between the pleasurable and the good: to achieve the pleasurable one must repudiate the good. There is no option in the text of (for instance) accepting one’s homosexuality as a good thing as well as taking pleasure in it. In this world, homosexuality is a bad thing. To pursue homoerotic desires is to do a deal with the devil, accepting that one is evil, and consequently embarking on a path that leads down into further depths of cruelty and harm.

This is not how we see things today, at least not among the theatre-going public of Sydney. We are far more inclined to imagine that goodness and pleasure can coexist, at least in relation to some sexual choices. But we still accept the goodness:pleasure dichotomy in relation to lots of moral issues. The pleasures of promiscuity almost made it as a good thing about fifty years ago, but that didn’t really stick, and now we are not too far from Victorian notions of fidelity. Doing drugs (another of the vices in Dorian Gray’s world) remains a pleasure incompatible with the good. And we still have a profound distrust of the narcissism of those who are young and rich. We don’t like selfish people. We generally think that anyone who is obsessed with their own pleasure and equipped with the means to indulge themselves is unlikely to be a good person (but we don’t see ourselves in that mirror). All in all, our opportunities and aptitudes for hypocrisy are about as good as those of the Victorians. So it is that the melodrama of Dorian Gray has the power to engage us now — we still feel that our pursuit of pleasure takes us away from the good and we are still interested to find out what we can get away with.

We are also just as obsessed with youth as Wilde’s Aesthetes — or even more so, living now in a age where clinging to the beauty and energy of youth is a national pass-time. The staging of this play makes the most of these cross-temporal connections. At one point there is a brilliant use of smart phone photo filter technology to highlight parallels between the fashionable set of 1880s London and the social media socialites of today.

Dorian Gray’s aging and corruption is stored in an unseen portrait, leaving him with a seductive visage that continues to obscure his blackening reputation. On social media, people project a self-image more alluring and more wholesome than their physical selves, and this image has more reality than their invisible daily lives.

‘There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about,’ as Lord Henry says, and the audience has no trouble relating to this sentiment.

It is tempting to speculate that the bourgeoisie of Western civilizations have been aspiring to the decadence of Oscar Wilde since that man was a boy, or even that the decadence of Wilde himself is the product of a dynamic tension between society’s productivity of good (discipline, order, work, the creation of surplus) and it consumptivity of pleasure (the use of surplus, destruction, relaxation, celebration, freedom).

*

In this production, Eryn Jean Norvill plays all the dramatic parts, assisted on stage by anonymous hands who pass her props, help with costume changes, move sets and film her from various angles. The action is displayed (a) by Norvill and simultaneously (b) on shifting screens that float about the stage. At times, the live performance is augmented with previously recorded sequences of Norvill. At one point she appears before the audience as six or so characters simultaneously, exchanging witty banter at a dinner party.

The effects achieved by this montage of stage and screen performance are various and delightful. One obvious benefit is that the screens provide close-ups that allow the actor to play more intimately to the audience — the kind of thing we are used to in films. Here we have the effect of intimacy in a theatre that constantly reminds us of the artificiality of the performance (something film conventionally attempts to make us forget).

Of course, this artificiality is no deficiency — in this play, it is a central theme, and we in the audience are quite moved at the tragic end of Dorian, even if he is only words by a dead queen performed by a beautiful and precocious young woman (actual age 36, thespian range an effortless multigendering 20 to 70).

Here we have a fascinating text, a talented actor, and an immensely clever and complex stage adaptation directed by Kip Williams of the STC. No wonder R!R!R! The technology used in this production appears to be state-of-the-art. The technical risks inherent in meeting the demands of the show are breathtaking. On the night I saw it, there was a technical glitch that momentarily interrupted the performance. One of the massive mobile screens had a wide band of black pixels from top to bottom, and the crew could not fix it. It hardly mattered. There was so much going on at every moment, the mind and eyes were fully occupied elsewhere.

I have wondered since whether the multimedia methodology of this production represents a potential way forward for live theatre, perhaps a way of competing with the technical munificence of cinema. I can imagine many plays being enhanced by projected close-ups allowing the audience to get closer to the action — this could even be seen as a borrowing from the sporting arena — but this is only the most simple use of screentech. In this play, all sorts of dramatic possibilities were opened up by the interplay and multiplication of actor and screen, but many of these possibilities were fully explored by the end of the night. It was brilliant, but (like many other good ideas) the full regalia of this show would get tired if used repeatedly. In this instance, the technology enabled and enhanced a tour-de-force performance by Norvill, and the resulting drama will probably remain unique.

*

One more thought: having one actor play all the parts highlighted the commonality of all the characters and the inward-looking nature of the themes of the text. Wilde wrote about himself. He wrote about society, but chiefly he wrote about how society defined him and how he redefined society. Like the myth of Narcissus, The picture of Dorian Gray is about self-regard, a theme that is enhanced when every character reflects a transmuted resemblance to Dorian himself.

© 2021 Craig Bingham
Sydney Town Hall, interior, showing the pipe organ.

Read something similar:

What I did on my holidays [A spot of culture in Sydney in summer — reviews]
1971 revisited – The Town Hall Affair [What do you get when Germaine Greer and Norman Mailer crash heads together? — theatre review]
The conservatism of same-sex-marriage [the new brand of social conservatism in Australia — opinion]

Read something different:

Light before darkness [metaphysical atheism]
Lesion [Diana was slightly lost — fiction]
Grumpy Suite [A ten poem conspiracy from the shitty side of life]

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