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Eryn Jean Norvill and Kip Williams are tight. Let’s-put-on-a-crazy-one-woman-show kinda tight. He calls her EJ, sometimes stretching it out to ″Eeeej″, and she delights in his deep nerdiness over what he calls his cine-theatre.
“Bert and Ernie,” says Williams, laughing. “We have a kind of naughty, cheeky, anarchic, subversive humour that is the most fun part, I think, of the collaboration. We can just make each other laugh in the most challenging of times.”
We’re talking about their landmark production of The Picture of Dorian Gray. It’s the first interview they have given together about the show, in which Norvill stars and which Williams adapted from Oscar Wilde’s novel and directs. It has dazzled critics and audiences since it premiered at the Sydney Theatre Company in November 2020.
Actor Eryn Jean Norvill and Sydney Theatre Company artistic director Kip Williams. Credit:Daniel Boud
Watching the show, it’s understandable why Norvill hasn’t spoken until now. It’s a work of choreographed chaos, in which she not only holds the middle but snaps it into pieces: juggling 26 live and pre-recorded characters, four mobile phones for live filming, plus on-stage costume changes, including one that involves wig, jacket, gloves, shoes and lighting a cigarette. It’s exhilarating to watch, but exhausting to even contemplate how she does it.
“Before the lights come up [at the end of the show] I’m genuinely like, ‘I’ll never have to do that again, surely? That was so hard and exhausting’,” the 37-year-old says. “And then I turn around and I see [the audience] and then I feel like, ‘Oh well, I’ll do it again tomorrow’.”
The production is now in the middle of its encore season in Sydney, following a stint at the Adelaide Festival and coming dates in Melbourne. An international tour produced by Michael Cassel is also in the works, with stops in New York and London, but no dates have been confirmed.
So, it’s big. Career-defining big. But Norvill and Williams, 35, are both so damn modest about the thing, it takes almost an hour to get Williams to admit how unbelievable it all is. Has he seen the buses driving all over town quoting multiple five-star reviews?
“Yeah, it’s pretty cool,” Williams, who is the artistic director of Sydney Theatre Company, says finally, chuckling.
In person, Norvill is somehow taller and smaller than she appears on stage, which is unusual for theatre actors who generally look like they do on the box. (TV and film actors, on the other hand, are generally pocket-sized.) But Norvill spends a good deal of The Picture of Dorian Gray projected onto six LED screens, the biggest of which is 10.08 x 14.40 metres, and rotating through a selection of wigs, sideburns and moustaches. Norvill’s performance is so accomplished, playful and elastic, I really have no idea who will walk in.
Eryn Jean Norvill says she wanted to play “all the slices of humanity.”Credit:Daniel Boud
When she and Williams do appear in the low-lit Ruth Cracknell Room at the back of the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Norvill is on the front foot: hand out to shake and checking in on my COVID-19 recovery. The whole production is in a strict COVID-19 bubble – “alternate performer” Nikki Shiels is still in rehearsal, meaning everything rests on Norvill’s shoulders. Still, they are happy to talk with masks off and Norvill jokes she has more photos on her phone of negative RATs than of actual people.
When The Picture of Dorian Gray was announced in September 2019, it was notable as it was the first time Norvill would be returning to the Sydney Theatre Company stage since she was the star witness against Oscar-winning actor Geoffrey Rush in his defamation trial against The Daily Telegraph. The newspaper reported in 2017 that Rush allegedly behaved inappropriately against Norvill during STC’s 2015 production of King Lear. While Norvill was described as an “utterly honest” witness, the federal court found in Rush’s favour, with The Daily Telegraph ordered to pay him a record $2.87million in damages.
The court case means Norvill and Rush’s names will forever be linked in a Google search but that undersells her drastically. She had already been pegged as a star on the rise, with a string of daring, high-profile roles and Sydney Theatre, Green Room and Melbourne Fringe Festival awards.
After the court case, Norvill “had run away for a bit”, moving to Tokyo as she decided what her future held. “It was just such an extreme time,” she says. “To be honest with you, I was kind of like, I don’t know what kind of artist I am any more. I’m in a transitional place. And I don’t know whether I just felt a bit disassociated.”
Then Williams called. It was May 2019 and he was in London, working on a job that would eventually fall through for the English National Opera.
The pair had known each other for more than 10 years, with Williams having directed Norvill in Romeo and Juliet, Suddenly Last Summer and All My Sons for STC. He was a safe harbour and had an offer she couldn’t refuse: would she consider a one-woman show in which she played multiple characters across two hours while negotiating on-stage costume changes with three camera operators who filmed her every move?
The Picture of Dorian Gray
“I was like, oh, that’s big. That’s big,” says Norvill, who then found a copy of Wilde’s book in the only English-speaking store in the suburb in which she lived. She read it in the Robot Restaurant – an only-in-Japan cafe filled with robots, ninjas, dragons, drums and blue-haired dancers. It’s the kind of place you can imagine Wilde hanging out in and not too far removed from the opium den Norvill’s Dorian Gray runs through one heady, twisted night.
“I immediately came back to him,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Yeah, I want to play all the slices of humanity.’ And I wanted to play a lot of men.
“And I knew that as long as we’re working together, and as long as we were deeply in a creative process, with joy at the very centre of it, then it would be fine, that we would just fall forward, sometimes over, but then get back up again.
“But there was also like, ‘We’re f—ing mad’. There was that thought but that’s OK. Risk is good, spontaneity is good. And I didn’t know where I was at until I tried in such a big way.”
For his part, Williams chose Norvill because she was someone he felt safe with. After all, Williams – who was managing a theatre company devastated financially and emotionally by a pandemic shutdown – had as much to lose as she did.
“The process of making any work of art is a terrifying one,” he says. “And particularly when you’re taking risk within it, that intensifies tenfold. And you need your collaborators to be people with whom you feel incredibly safe. And with whom you can also stand at the edge of that cliff and go, ‘Are we going to jump?’ And you hold hands and jump together.”
Eryn Jean Norvill plays 26 characters – some live, some pre-recorded – in The Picture of Dorian Gray.Credit:Daniel Boud
Oh, there was also Norvill’s voice.
“She’s an extraordinary dramatic actor,” Williams says. “Her text specificity, her mastery of language, her incredible emotional range, the unique sonorous voice that she has, you could listen to …”
Norvill jumps in: “Sonorous voice? Heeeeey, David Attenborough, take that.“
Williams shrugs: “We talk about David Attenborough a lot.”
When The Picture of Dorian Gray was first published as a novella in 1890 –the story of a beautiful, innocent young man seduced into a life of moral decay by the libertine Lord Henry Wootton – it caused a literary scandal.
The pair meet while Dorian is having his portrait painted by the upstanding, yet also infatuated, artist Basil Hallward, who warns Dorian against the temptations Wootton is extolling. Dorian, however, becomes so enamoured with his flawless self in Hallward’s portrait – and of the lifestyle promised by Wootton – that he strikes a deal with the devil: if he goes on to live a life of vice, only his portrait will show the ravages of such a lifestyle, while he remains in the full bloom of youth.
Reviewers accused Wilde of being “openly French”, believing it was written under the “influence of naughty French decadence”. Others called it “unclean”, “heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction” and “nauseous”.
The Picture of Dorian Gray has been one of the most acclaimed theatre shows in recent memory.Credit:Daniel Boud
Wilde dismissed the criticism and in a preface for a new, extended version of the book in 1891, he wrote: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” But it was the beginning of the end for Wilde – lawyers from each side quoted from the book during his trial for indecency in 1895, in which he was convicted and sentenced to two years of hard labour. Five years later he was found dead in a decrepit Paris hotel.
What makes it relevant today, says Williams, is that anyone can be “seduced by a life that is filled with the self, ego, narcissism, excess, and there being no consequences for it.
“And that question of ‘what does a human do when they have no consequences for their actions?’ is a thoroughly modern question inside this very old book.“
Putting the show together was a monumental task: read aloud, the book clocks in at 15 hours and Williams boiled it down to two. Rehearsal was six weeks, including one week of tech, and 11 days of shooting the video portions, such as the dinner party scene where Norvill plays six pre-recorded and one live character on stage at once. (The only character not played by Norvill is the duchess’ dog, played by Williams’ pug Tilly.)
Cameras, mobile phones and screens are used in the production.Credit:Daniel Boud
“It was pretty insane,” says Williams. “Every day it was like climbing an Everest, which was hard and exhausting but exhilarating.”
This Saturday night will mark Norvill’s 68th appearance as Dorian. She says it still “flattens” her and she is not looking for perfection each night.
“I just try to remember that it’s still very much in process and that I have to continue to practise every part of it,” she says. “Because I have a thousand limbs and some of those limbs aren’t mine – they’re stage management’s and there are screens, and they’re me on pre-record, me in voice over.
“So I just try to just be very much in the centre and ready to be spontaneous in any which direction. And, you know, sometimes it doesn’t work. And that’s OK.
“The good thing about this show is there’s a sense of easy connection to the audience. So I can, at any one time, turn to the audience and go, ‘Oh, that didn’t work,’ and, ‘Shall I try again?’”
Norvill says the one thing she has discovered about herself in doing The Picture of Dorian Gray is that “safety and care always needs to be at the epicentre of creating something meaningful”.
“I learnt that taking risks and being splayed and open and brave, is what it means to participate as a human and as an artist,” she says. “And that I really like being belligerent.
“Me and Kip have learnt a lot about each other as people and as artists, which is a very rare thing, not only with a friend but with a collaborator.
“We’ve learnt that we’re robust, and that we can disagree and still have deep respect and love, and that having different ideas usually means there’s a more luminous and strong outcome to solve the things.”
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