The Picture of Dorian Gray Review

The Picture of Dorian Gray
Directed by Kip Williams
The Sydney Theatre Company
Theatre Royal Haymarket

The reviewer attended during previews on 9 February 2024

It may sound like ballyhoo but it’s true: no one has seen a Dorian Gray like this before. The production by The Sydney Theatre Company, directed by Kip Williams and starring Sarah Snook in its London run from February to May 2024, catapults Wilde’s timeless myth into the social media era with a combination of technical chutzpah and theatrical razzamatazz.

While the production has been duly lauded for its astonishing use of video and for Snook’s 26-character tour de force, what makes it a true must-see is that it makes the familiar story excitingThe Picture of Dorian Gray has rarely been satisfying on the stage. It may seem to have the right ingredients for success — glamourous characters, witty lines, a great gothic hook of a story — but it’s not structured like a play, there’s precious little action, and the ‘monster’ is a static picture, lacking the malevolent presence of a villain like Mr. Hyde or Dracula. Add to this the fact that most theatrical adaptations perforce miss out Wilde’s florid prose, which is as important as the dialogue.

Williams tackles all these problems in creative ways. Snook alternates between narrating the story using Wilde’s words and performing as its many characters. In a February talk he gave on his ‘cinetheatre’ theories and techniques, Williams said this choice was partly to harken back to how we first engage with stories: having them read to us by adults. The effect also suggested the way that a child will tell you about a film or book: describing the action but then also acting it out. Snook as narrator has that kind of impish quality at first, weaving her lines around the dialogue and popping into scenes.

As for action, after the early scenes Snook is in constant motion, often rushing across the stage (and behind and under it) in a dizzyingly physical performance. Williams amps up the movement, particularly in a frenetic club scene (replacing the novel’s opium den) and a mad forest chase that represents William’s one major deviation from the novel’s plot. Snook changes costumes and wigs onstage, aided by the black-clad assistants and camera operators who are her co-creators. This adds to the mood of childlike silliness early on, with the sort of raiding-the-dressing-box glee that recalls a French & Saunders or Dame Edna Everage skit. But what sometimes appears chaotic is in fact choreographed to the nth degree: in order to synch her filmed stage movements with the pre-filmed video segments, Snook must hit hundreds of color-coded marks on the stage, while she and the onstage camera team must line up with hundreds of cues.

While Williams has kept the novel’s structure, he seems to have recognized the theatrical gaps in it and bridged them with both stagecraft and narrative additions. He jazzes up Dorian’s explorations of pleasure prompted by the yellow book, and the aforementioned club/opium-den scene, scenes that normally fall flat on stage. To get the dramatic boost he needs from the Selby estate hunting party scene, he has written new dialogue and a story change that work well; he also brings in a bit of gothic stage design that further sharpens the scene, and noticeably darkens the tone.

Every director adapting this novel faces ‘the picture problem’: how do you make the picture of Dorian Gray do the work it needs to do? How do you physically present it such that the audience can see the changes? How do you make it horrific enough? Perhaps most importantly, how do you make this prop drive the action at key turning points: when Dorian makes his wish, when Basil sees it midway through, when Dorian sees it at the end? Looking at a picture is hardly a dramatic event. (The last major cinematic version, 2009’s Dorian Gray, made the picture move to make it more powerful, with questionable effect.)

Williams — who has filled this production with more pictures than any previous version, a whole gallery of screens that swoop around the action — had the greatest opportunity of any to magnify and distort the picture, to force it upon us in a startling fashion. But he doesn’t. ‘I knew early on I was not going to show the picture,’ Williams explained. ‘The most important relationship is between Dorian and the picture. I put the audience inside the portrait, constantly watching Dorian.’

And we can’t take our eyes off her, because wherever she is – on multiple screens, on the stage – and whoever she is at any given moment, it’s all about her. One of the delights of the screens is that we get to see her face more closely, as she modulates from broad comedy to the kind of nuanced shades that distinguished her award-gathering work on Succession. As much as the screens or the stage, the drama of Dorian Gray plays out on Snook’s face, the kind of living canvas upon which Dorian’s sins are writ. It would be a star-making performance were Snook not already a star.

Cinetheatre in Action

The Picture of Dorian Gray represents the first in Williams’ gothic trilogy for the Sydney Theatre Company – the 2020 Australian production was followed by The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 2022, with Dracula opening later this year — and a major evolution of the practice he calls cinetheatre. This involves the mixture of video and live elements, for which Williams has three principles:

  • Video must be live. ‘The audience knows when it is and when it isn’t,’ Williams said.
  • The screen must have a spatial relationship to the audience.
  • The camera must be active and acknowledged.

Dorian Gray marks an important test of the first principle: previously, his productions only used live video, shot onstage and beamed to the screens. This latest production demanded pre-recorded video, something Williams had shunned hitherto. At his talk in February, he and Andrew Upton, a previous artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company, stressed the importance of space in theatre, space that is charged by the energy the actors create. Upton said video was often a ‘dead space’, and though Williams had successfully integrated video in his other productions, using pre-recorded video might sap rather than amplify the onstage energy.

Williams has not only mitigated that risk, he has created a genuine sense of magic. As when watching a David Copperfield or David Blaine seemingly break the rules of physics, the audience in London was stunned by the multiplicity of Snooks interacting onscreen with integrated images of Snook captured live on stage. The technical wizardry (made possible in part by the software program Disguise) has the audience asking themselves, ‘How are they doing that?’ In the bravura club sequence, for instance, Snook films herself with an iPhone, flipping between Snapchat filters to portray different characters, including a stubbly James Vane filter custom-created by the production.

In his talk, Williams shared several music videos that had inspired his vision, particularly Kylie Minogue’s ‘Come Into My World’, directed by French filmmaker Michel Gondry, which features a syncopated host of Kylies. Films that influenced Williams included Sally Potter’s gender-bending and fourth-wall-breaking 1992 film Orlando, and Lars Von Trier’s Dogville from 2003, which makes transparent the creation of place and space, as does Dorian Gray with its bare opening stage and visible cameras.

The sense of wonder conjured by the show also brings to mind the original cinemagician, Georges Méliès, whose groundbreaking silent films enthralled audiences with a superabundance of things they’d never seen before — from characters disappearing and reappearing to a rocket landing in the moon’s eye. One scene in Williams’ Dorian Gray, with Sibyl Vane’s head on a puppet stage addressing marionette characters, nods (if you will) to Méliès’ L’homme à la Tête en Caoutchouc (1901).

About that scene, Williams noted, ‘Sybil Vane has an antithetical philosophy to Lord Henry. She goes from artifice, where she’s played first by a puppet, to real — and then back to artifice via Lord Henry, who tells Dorian, “She wasn’t real.” ‘

The puppet show illustrates that, while strikingly novel in its use of technology, the production also incorporates references to various forms of entertainment: a dinner party scene played with characters from a farce; a brief chorus line dance with Snook and the camera crew; a costume that hints at Elvis’s Vegas years, worn with a blonde bouffant that seems plucked from the head of David Bowie circa his callow 1980s commercial period, both markers perhaps of Dorian’s fall from grace.

Then there is the excellent use of music, written and chosen by Clemence Williams, the director’s sister. In the first half it helps set the mood, but later it signals the time shift — 130 years here rather than 18 — with the burbling groove of ‘I Feel Love’. Its most dramatic use comes straight after Basil’s murder, as Dorian belts out the showtune ‘I’m Gorgeous’. ‘When Dorian murders his friend, he is the most isolated from us,’ Williams explained. ‘And then after the song we applaud because he has seduced us again.’

Some may decry the play’s screens as a gimmick, but Williams doesn’t rest on the wow factor alone — he makes his technology serve the theme. In the later scenes, ‘Dorian and the narrator become the same person and he starts to lose control’, Williams said; the camera responds by chasing Dorian, drawing us into his paranoia. Increasingly, Dorian’s image is fractured across multiple screens as his persona cracks. The video presentation pushes the exploration of how identity is created and corroded, of the multiplicity of personae within each of us.

Ultimately, the justification for the show’s central artifice — one person playing all the parts — can be traced to Wilde himself. ‘Basil Hallward is what I think I am,’ he wrote, ‘Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be — in other ages, perhaps.’ This echoes Basil Hallward’s statement that ‘every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter’. Bravo to Williams, Snook and the Sydney Theatre Company team for giving us the most daring and decadent Dorian Gray yet, and leading us to rediscover what the novel truly is: a funhouse mirror view of Wilde’s soul.

– Darcy Sullivan, Press Officer, The Oscar Wilde Society