There have been few shows produced in Australia over the last decade received as enthusiastically as Sydney Theatre Company’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Directed by STC’s Artistic Director, Kip Williams, and starring Eryn Jean Norvill in a solo performance that defies all superlatives, the production has received unanimous rave reviews (including a five star review from Limelight) extended its season twice, and sold out.

Eryn Jean Norvill as the aging Lord Henry Wotton live and on screen. Photograph © Daniel Boud

With its extensive use of live and pre-recorded video, the staging has been praised as a triumphant return for Sydney’s theatre scene. But for Williams, the journey to The Picture of Dorian Gray started five years ago, when he was working on a production of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer.

“It was probably the biggest turning point I’ve had, creatively,” Williams recalls. The director had just started using live video in his work, and had a sudden vision of how he wanted a key moment to play out: the climactic monologue (performed by Norvill) would be staged with an enormous white screen separating the audience from the action. On the screen, Norvill would deliver the monologue, as a camera zoomed into a stark close-up and zoomed out to reveal a different scene.

“It’s rare that those sudden moments happen for me,” Williams says. “I’m usually like a monk with my bible, with the play, whipping myself into finding the answer.”

For the full effect to be achieved, Norvill was required to deliver the monologue – already a dramatically difficult piece – with a camera right in her face, while a massive scene change happened around her. The final touch? Williams asked Norvill if she would be able to imperceptibly move herself from one chair to another while performing the piece.

“She looked at me with a semi-death stare and twinkle in her eye and said, ‘I’ll give it a go’.”

If that was an impressive theatrical illusion, The Picture of Dorian Gray is wall-to-wall magic. Norvill is the sole performer on stage for two hours with no interval, constantly negotiating five moving cameras and countless precisely timed cues and illusions. She jumps from character to character in lightning quick costume and wig changes. She acts opposite six pre-recorded versions of herself in one scene. In another, she uses mobile phone filters to transform her face from line-to-line as Dorian’s terror grows.

Eryn Jean Norvill as Dorian Gray, using a mobile phone filter to transform her face. Photograph © Daniel Boud

Williams says he had long been thinking of adapting Oscar Wilde’s gothic melodrama about a man whose portrait becomes a kind of physical manifestation of his conscience as he dives into a hedonistic lifestyle. Williams was excited to use video to explore how an individual is in an act of performance at all times, and to delve deeply into a person’s relationship with themselves. Things really started coming together in May 2019, when he asked Norvill if she would take on this mammoth task. Norvill was travelling around Japan at the time. She immediately found a copy of the book, and 24 hours later told Williams that she was in.

Williams then set about adapting the novel for the stage, a process he describes as “terrifying” given he was “ghost-writing for Oscar Wilde”. To read the novel aloud takes around 14 hours, but he had just two to tell the story on stage. He also had several passages of new material he wanted to add – although he says the additions have largely gone unnoticed.

“I said: the success of the adaptation will be if people can’t tell it’s not Oscar Wilde, which I think has happened,” Williams says.

In late 2019, Williams started working with Designer Marg Horwell and Video Designer David Bergman on solving the many challenges of the show. Together, they had to create an aesthetic and determine how physical elements would interact with video.

“When I start thinking about a show, it’s always image-based and casting a very wide net,” Horwell says. “The first thing I looked at was heaps of portraiture – I looked at Francis Bacon and Cindy Sherman, but also lots of terrifying queer art of altars made of doll’s heads or cigarette butts on faces; just looking at what a portrait is and what it would be to pull a portrait apart and put it back together over the course of a show.”

Eryn Jean Norvill with several screens. Photograph © Daniel Boud

The design they settled on uses seven screens, all in portrait orientation, that move up and down in the space, as well as across the stage, creating the impression of a living, breathing portrait.

After a week-long workshop in February 2020, the show was due to go into rehearsals in June. Suddenly, the COVID-19 pandemic struck and most of STC’s 2020 season was postponed. It wasn’t until October that rehearsals finally started, under vastly different circumstances, including a strict COVID safety plan restricting the number of people allowed into the rehearsal room. Even Horwell, who was in Melbourne, had to do much of her preparatory work remotely, using Zoom to pick fabric colours from samples selected by STC wardrobe staff. She finally made it to Sydney for rehearsals in October, after two weeks of mandatory hotel quarantine.

Usually for a show with this level of technology, STC would schedule additional rehearsal time, including extra technical rehearsals. But given various restrictions – including a budget that shrank in the face of COVID – the entire production was realised in just five weeks. In fact, the first planned preview had to be cancelled, and the show was only run in its entirety for the first time at the first preview.

Out of the five weeks’ rehearsal, 11 full days were taken up by shooting video footage for the play. That created significant scheduling pressures given all the footage featured just one actor, constantly changing wigs, costumes and makeup to transform.

“We were shooting almost a full-length feature film worth of content while rehearsing a live play and choreographing everything with the camera team,” Bergman says.

Eryn Jean Norvill in the dinner party scene. Photograph © Daniel Boud

One of the most technically dazzling scenes – a dinner party in which Norvill interacts with six pre-recorded versions of herself as different characters – was filmed on the Thursday of week one. Given budgetary restraints, it was costumed entirely from existing STC costumes.

“She’s wearing two of Pamela Rabe’s dresses, something Leon Ford wore, something Blazey Best wore, I think. It’s a history of STC in that scene,” Horwell says.

Many of the looks for Norvill – who plays the predominantly male characters from the novel live – were honed over the course of rehearsal. Finding the right looks required the team to lean into the queerness of Wilde’s writing and the role-playing at the centre of the production.

“If we went really typically masculine with the look, it never really read as masculine – it read strangely stuck on or something,” Horwell says. “So she wears heels through the whole show, which is something we found in rehearsals. We found that she’s more masculine when she’s corseted than wearing a man’s coat.”

Throughout the whole rehearsal process, Bergman used a piece of video software called Disguise, which allowed him to create 3D visualisations of the Roslyn Packer Theatre with the screens in place. The software is regularly used for large-scale video in stadium rock concerts by artists such as Rolling Stones, Beyoncé, Guns N’ Roses and Robbie Williams, and STC staff were given training by the person responsible for using the software on Channel Nine’s The Voice. It was through this tool that the creatives could make key decisions about footage and screen movements before even getting on stage.

In the theatre, there are three camera operators who have been rehearsed into choreography that they repeat each night. There are also three stage managers – two of whom double as camera operators, and a third responsible for calling all the cues (lighting, sound, video, scenery changes etc.) for the show. One of the people listening to the stage manager’s calls is a video switcher who sits backstage firing all the video cues, changing camera angles and adding different effects.

“I don’t actually know how many cues there are, because we stopped counting,” Bergman says. “If you think about the show, every time a camera changes, there’s a cue. Every time a piece of video plays, there’s a cue. Every time a screen moves, there’s a cue.”

In several moments, the live footage is also merged with pre-recorded green screen footage to give the impression that there are multiple Norvills on stage. It’s a simple trick but Bergman says it gets a great reaction from the audience every night.

“It’s magical when people go ‘oh, there’s a hand there’, and everybody’s brains start computing at the same time.”

Eryn Jean Norvill with the three camera operators. Photograph © Daniel Boud

But the video doesn’t just create technical challenges; most of the pre-recorded sections which Norvill interacts with run for several minutes, requiring the actor to have extraordinary focus.

“You press play and the whole scene plays out – so if she misses her timing, the other character is going to talk over her or there’ll be an awkward pause before the next person comes in,” Williams says.

While the technical achievement is readily apparent, the production relies on human ingenuity and skill to create all its magical moments. That idea of melding the highly technical with the manual and the new with the old is threaded through the entire show, according to Horwell.

“The good thing about this show is we used people more than we usually would,” she says. “And it’s a particularly nice time in our industry to be using people. There’s even a puppet show that’s entirely manual – you pull something and something else moves. And we wanted everything to look like a painting, so heaps of things are hand-painted by scenic artists. And instead of a mechanical revolve, we have people come on and push things in a circle.”

For Williams, it’s essential that all of the razzle-dazzle in the staging serves the story he and Norvill are telling and never overwhelms what’s a surprisingly introspective work.

“For all the technical difficulties of doing the show, it also asks an immense amount of vulnerability of the artists to confront our own selves, to see the Dorian that exists in all of us,” Williams says. “What I think is truly remarkable in EJ [Norvill] is that she pulls off all the wizardry of the show and technical difficulties while sharing her humanity and baring her soul, and inviting other people to do the same. I think it’s pretty amazing.”

The Picture of Dorian Gray in numbers

  • 1 actor… Eryn Jean Norvill
  • 26 characters… most notably Dorian Gray himself and Lord Henry
  • 5 weeks rehearsal… including 11 full days of filming
  • 3 camera operators… plus two stage managers who step in from time to time
  • 1 video switcher… responsible for cueing all the video at each performance
  • 7 LED screens… of a variety of sizes and dimensions

The Picture of Dorian Gray runs at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney until 9 January

Tickets

Supported by the City of Sydney

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