Oscar Wilde’s pungent story of a young socialite’s Faustian bargain seems a perfect one for this age of the curated self image, Insta-filters and instant notoriety.
The storytelling (a two-hour adaptation of Wilde’s text) takes place on a soundstage, with 26 character roles played by one performer, Eryn Jean Norvill. Some of them are captured live by roving camera operators and transmitted to high definition screens flown in and out of the space. Other roles are prerecorded and mixed live to the visual field. Smartphone apps, face-swap technology and Instagram filters are deployed to blur reality and nightmare with the algorithmic perfection and perversions observable among today’s influencer caste.
The effect can be discombobulating. At one point, while Norvill is performing characters in dialogue with one another, she pops into the scene as narrator. Later, Dorian and the narrator start to bicker over who should be telling the story. In another very funny scene, Norvill plays a gallery of gossiping grotesques seated at a long dinner table.
Whether she’s playing the lowest servant or the highest of society grande dames – Norvill draws her characters with a brilliant eye for detail and comic potential. Mrs Leaf, Dorian’s ancient housekeeper, is a tiny masterpiece of portraiture in itself.
Aided by designer Marg Horwell’s exceptional costumes (many of which are changed on the fly during the production), Dorian evolves from tousled youth to an ageless predator, a connoisseur of the very lowest entertainments. We never see the portrait. After all, who could top the shock reveal in the 1945 film version? Instead, we are transfixed by the image of Norvill filtering and photoshopping her own face in real time.
As Lord Henry, Norvill is dashing, a Drag King dreamboat. Basil Hallward, the painter of the cursed portrait, is drawn with sensitivity and a wry eye for artistic foibles.
Williams and video designer David Bergman create breathtaking moments, some with digital technology, others with the stuff of stick puppet shows, as when Dorian transports us to a toy theatre in which the short-lived apple of his eye, Sybil Vane, murders the plays of William Shakespeare.
With Dorian Gray, Williams moves ever closer to the realm of a true live cinema-theatre experience. Not everyone’s cup of tea, perhaps, but everyone who sees this production will come away singing the praises of Norvill. Her non-stop, two-hour whirl of double and triple duties that require her to flit between narrator and character, from bit-player to star – while hitting the marks for the onstage camera crew – is an astonishing feat.
See it if you can. This is novel-to-stage translation in the world-class league. If this don’t end up at BAM or in London someday post-pandemic, I’ll eat my cravat.