Review: The Picture Of Dorian Gray (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Nov 25 – Dec 19, 2020
Playwright: Kip Williams (adapted from the Oscar Wilde novel)
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Eryn Jean Norvill
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
Self-preservation is in our human nature, but when it manifests in forms of narcissism, we have to wonder if that urge of vanity, is in fact paradoxically self-destructive. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray tells the story of a man so taken by his own beauty, he sells his soul in order to forever retain it. That juxtaposition of soul and beauty sets up a dichotomy, that makes us consider the inextricability of one with the other. If the soul is essentially good, Wilde wants us to think that beauty is ultimately impossible, in those who are fundamentally bad. His narrative is compelling, although the evidence in our real lives, may prove those beliefs less convincing.

Kip Williams’ ultra modern version places on the stage, front and centre, screens that display digitalised imagery, most of which can be thought of as selfies of Wilde’s nineteenth century characters, seeming to represent something more tangible than the flimsy yet seductive pixels we encounter in cinematic style. It is a thrilling production, fast-paced and very attractive, able to hold us captive with stunning sights and sounds, inventive from start to finish. Appropriate for our culture, one that has been taken over by mobile devices, and that the show so fervently interrogates, causing the viewer to oscillate between suspecting that it might all be slightly facile, and thinking that maybe there is something to be said about existence in 2020, as we obsess over all things pertaining to facades. In some ways, one could go away thinking that Williams has proven Wilde wrong.

It is the surface that we find glorious in Williams’ vision, with Marg Horwell’s work as designer, and Nick Schlieper’s lights providing an endless stream of breathtaking moments, along with David Bergman’s very sophisticated and thoughtful video work, bringing Australian theatre into a futuristic new era. Clemence Williams too, excels with sound and music, especially memorable when her approach turns baroque, and we feel aroused by the surprising dimensions she is able to build for our senses. Stage Manager Minka Stevens, along with all the crew, must be congratulated for their valiant and expert fulfillment of an exceptionally complex undertaking.

Actor Eryn Jean Norvill plays Dorian Gray and all the other 25 roles. It is the tallest of orders, not only having to switch between personalities at lightning speed for the entire two-hour duration, but also for the extreme demands of an impossibly technical show, involving multiple cameras, and interactions with pre-recorded footage. Norvill’s spirit is indomitable, but we wonder if any human is able to meet every requirement of this merciless challenge.

There is no question that our lives are turning increasingly digital. Some of us might still hang on to ideas that our analogue selves will always be ultimately more genuine, but forces that want us to relinquish remaining parts that are private and physical, are winning every battle. As we transform into pixels and data, at the insistence of those capitalistic entities, we begin to learn that the digital is no longer merely a representation of something else. Images on a screen are becoming more real than what we see without devices as conduit. Also not forgetting, that we are marching towards a time, when the only images we see are either digital or dreams. No one will ever get to Dorian Gray’s flesh, only the evidence of his being, in computerised forms. There is a narcissism in our resistance to this future. We want to believe in our supremacy over technology, as we had believed in our supremacy over nature and other species. Humans seem never to learn that the world is not about us.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Rules For Living (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Nov 2 – Dec 19, 2020
Playwright: Sam Holcroft
Director: Susanna Dowling
Cast: Ella Jacob, Keegan Joyce, Amber McMahon, Hazem Shammas, Bruce Spence, Sonia Todd, Nikita Waldron
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
It is Christmas lunch at Francis’ home in the affluent North Shore. He is a successful lawyer, and both his sons are desperately trying to follow in his footsteps, although their authentic passions lie clearly in other fields. A lot of Sam Holcroft’s Rules For Living talks about the conflict between who we are, and who we are expected to be. It is about the standards set by society, by family, friends and lovers, that have very little to do with what one needs for a satisfying existence, and everything to do with obedience, and for keeping up with the joneses. An examination of middle class mirage is plat du jour, as served up by this predictable comedy, giving us nothing edgy or indeed revelatory.

Actor Sonia Todd plays Edith, mother to the boys, especially effective when bringing emphasis to the irony of narcissistic anguish in people who have it all. Everything is too stressful in her perfect world, where not a hair is allowed to be out of place. Todd offers an accurate sense of bourgeois uptight-ness, that is valuable in our understanding of early twenty-first century Western civilisation, even though the noisy ensemble piece does ultimately prevent anything meaningful or profound to be properly conveyed.

Directed by Susanna Dowling, the show is consistently energetic, but bewilderingly unfunny. The performers work extraordinarily hard to entertain, but none seems to have located any significant humour in the piece, that they so laboriously bring to the stage. Their approaches range from realist to absurdist, all of which miss the mark, although it can often appear that there is little in the writing that is inherently amusing. Design aspects are elegant and polished, but conservatively rendered, for a production that looks, sounds and feels like the hundred Christmas comedies that have come before, always unthreatening, but banal at best.

As we try to survive a living hell comprised of Trumpism and COVID-19, telling stories about vicious family dynamics in 2020, proves to be an exercise that feels little more than a slightly quaint distraction from real life. What might have been important theatre in 2015, when Rules For Living had made its international premiere, now lacks pertinence in a vastly transformed world. There are much bigger fish to fry, and art needs to keep up.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au