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Review: Sarah Snook Is a Darkly Funny Dorian Gray

A large, rectangular screen hangs from the top of the stage at the Theater Royal Haymarket in London. It is, rather appropriately, in portrait mode.

Beneath it, the Australian actress Sarah Snook (“Succession,”“Run Rabbit Run”), sporting a Johnny Bravo-style blonde quiff, is circulated by a small team of black-clad camera operators who broadcast her every move onto the screen in real time as she simultaneously narrates and performs the title role of Oscar Wilde's “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”

Later, several more screens descend, playing prerecorded footage of Snook in no fewer than twenty-five other roles. Over the course of the next two hours, the onstage Snook interacts seamlessly with these digitalized selves. There are no other actors involved.

Wilde's 1890 novel, in which a handsome rake makes a Faustian bargain with the cosmos by trading his soul for eternal youth (and comes to regret it), lends itself to stage adaptation: It is dialogue-heavy, punctuated by witty, morally intelligent exposition ; its allegory of human hubris is timeless.

This adaptation, by the Sydney Theater Company, directed by Kip Williams and running through May 11, is a formally ambitious but playful multimedia production. The single-actor format and clever use of camerawork give visual expression to the novel's themes of overweening egotism and existential dread.

In the show's most memorable scene, Snook holds up a smartphone in selfie mode, which is synced to the big screen above her. While continuing to narrate the story, she plays around with a filter, altering her facial features to generate a much younger visage — a cartoonish parody of youthful sexiness. She then capriciously turns the filter off and on several times, heightening the contrast with weird scrunched-up faces when the filter is off. This segment, with its implicit allusion to the everyday narcissism of Instagram culture, brings Wilde's tale into our century.

Snook plays the male characters with a winkingly ironic haughtiness, drawing appreciative titters from the audience. Her Dorian is a caricature of self-regard, inviting judgment but also eliciting mirth; when his pride gives way to anxious boredom, he's like a rat trapped in a maze. (The voices are naturally tricky, but the fake sideburns go a long way.)

The aesthetic palate here is a blend of period and contemporary — somehow neither and both. While certain props evoke a fin-de-siecle opulence — a chaise longue covered in flowers, a set of luscious blue curtains — we are occasionally yanked back to a generic modernity: An opium den is rendered as a nightclub; the distinctive strains of Donna Summer's 1977 hit, “I Feel Love,” soundtrack one scene.

There is also something vaguely tongue-in-cheek about much of the period garb, by Marg Horwell. Dorian's libertine friend, Lord Henry Wotton, who eggs him on in his hedonistic endeavors, wears a purple jacket with a blue bow tie. At one point, he and the Duchess of Monmouth receive Botox injections while languidly sipping on Martinis and dragging on cigarettes.

The show's true stars are the production team — and, in particular, the video designer, David Bergman — who achieved the feat of making this one-woman show feel positively busy. Crucially, the multimedia format doesn't feel like a gimmick because it helps tease out the play's themes: Vanity and its accompanying psychic turmoil are both evoked through relentless use of extreme close-ups, and the multiple screens create a sense of visual cacophony that correlates to psychological disturbance.

Gradually, Dorian's terrible behavior — most egregiously, his treatment of poor Sibyl Vane, who takes her own life after he cruelly breaks off an engagement with her — catches up with him, culminating in a powerful denouement, in which five screens show Dorian from multiple angles while he writhes in anguish.

Multimedia productions can sometimes carry a whiff of self-importance, but this show is disarmingly playful. There are two false glitches, in which the onstage Snook and her prerecorded self get in each other's way, narrating the same lines simultaneously. (The latter graciously gives way, which is how we can be sure it's scripted.)

Dorian's knifing of Basil Hallward, the hapless artist responsible for the titular painting, is rendered in darkly comic fashion, with Snook pausing between stabs to check herself in a hand mirror. Shortly afterwards, she signals to the audience to temper their laughter: “I'm trying to get away with murder!”

This “Picture of Dorian Gray” is, on its own terms, a triumph. And yet, a bit of doubt remains. The technical wizardry enhances the story — but does it also overshadow it? The eye is always drawn upward, to the screen, such that the physical presence of the actor feels almost incidental. One suspects that many audience members at such a production are never fully in the story.

Instead of pondering the moral vicissitudes of life, we're thinking about the screens, and the novelty of being in a hallowed auditorium dating back to 1821, looking at digital faces instead of flesh-and-blood people. It works, with Wilde's material — but I hope it doesn't catch on.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Through May 11 at the Theater Royal Haymarket in London; trh.co.uk

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Written by ezzeddif

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