View all newsletters
Sign up to our newsletters

Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
  2. Theatre
16 February 2024

Sarah Snook’s one-woman The Picture of Dorian Gray is gimmicky and shallow

Technical bravura, camera trickery and a high-wire, high-energy performance are not enough to make this show enjoyable or meaningful.

By Pippa Bailey

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, our protagonist is gripped by a “passion for impossible things”. Theatre, too, seems caught in a similar mania. Andrew Scott’s eight roles in Vanya not being enough, nor Eddie Izzard’s 19 in Great Expectations, Sarah Snook now plays 26 in a head-spinning adaptation of the Oscar Wilde novel.

It begins with Snook walking on to the black, cavernous, undressed stage and taking a seat surrounded by several cameras. Her face appears in huge and intimate detail on a central screen suspended from the ceiling. At first, it seems the production will follow Vanya’s lead, using props and slight physical and vocal shifts to indicate different characters: Snook quivers and clutches a paintbrush as Basil Hallward, who is working on a portrait of one Dorian Gray, and sneers and fingers a cigarette as the hedonistic aristocrat Lord Henry Wotton. On seeing the finished portrait, Gray – at first simpering and doe eyed, with an angelic puff of white-blonde hair – wishes he could give his soul to look forever as young and beautiful as he does on the canvas. Faustian pact made, he is seduced by Wotton’s louche ideas to live an increasingly immoral life, bearing no consequence, while the painting is marred by his sins.

But the camera trickery soon mounts; Snook interacts with pre-recorded footage of herself as different characters on an increasing number of screens – she hosts a dinner party with six guests, all her – and also provides omniscient narration. It is technically accomplished and remarkable that there is not a single hitch. But more often than not, you find yourself watching the actress on screen rather than on stage – sometimes because she is obscured on stage, but mostly simply out of compulsion. Kip Williams’s adaptation – at London’s Theatre Royal Haymarket after a much-lauded run with a different lead, Eryn Jean Norvill, in Sydney – is more about Snook’s relationship with the camera than with the audience.

This may be a one-woman play, but Snook is not alone on stage. A posse of crew members, dressed in black, are with her at all times – seamlessly operating the cameras, rearranging the set, helping her through costume changes and handing her props. So significant is the crew’s role that at curtain call they line up together to bow as if a cast of actors.

It is all very wry and self-referential: Snook makes knowing eyes at the camera, Fleabag-style; winces as a moustache is ripped off by a crew member; and even interrupts the screen version of herself, the “real” Gray telling the pre-recorded narrator: “I’ve got this bit.” She says the day is sunny and, with the click of her fingers, the lighting takes on a warmer tone; she says that there is an armchair, points at a space, and there one is conjured. Such flourishes would be clever and funny used sparingly – and are at first – but employed ad nauseam invite the audience to snigger at every turn.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

The Picture of Dorian Gray, with its themes of unnatural youth and superficiality, could almost have been written for our selfie-obsessed age, and Williams is at pains to emphasise this – to a tiresome extent. As Gray descends into debauchery, Snook holds up a smartphone and speaks to its camera; her face, projected above, is air brushed and plumped by a series of filters. She edits her own image, dragging and distorting her features as in a face-tuning app, a 21st-century interpretation of Wilde’s supernaturally altered portrait. At one point, the on-screen Wotton and Duchess of Monmouth are given injections of filler and Botox while sipping their pre-dinner cocktails.

As the technical bravura heightens, Snook’s performance becomes increasingly schlocky and vaudeville. A generous reading would be that this is intentional: Gray’s soul – and portrait – grow more grotesque, and so too does the production. By the end, he looks like a bloated, decaying Elvis, his halo of curls replaced by a haughty quiff. We know from her award-winning portrayal of Shiv in Succession that Snook can speak whole epics with just the twitch of a brow or the folding of her immaculately dressed arms, so one can only imagine that her swaggering campness here is a creative choice.

Ironically, this is a delightfully un-vain performance from Snook, the extreme close-ups revealing every pore and crevice of her face. By the play’s closing scene, she is all sweat and spittle and breathlessness, wiping the snot from her nose. One-person plays give their performers no respite, and this is a high-wire, high-energy act for Snook: fast and physical and full of tech cues. I marvel at her endurance, and wonder how she will manage the full 14 weeks. The effort of it all is so very visible.

Critics will no doubt call The Picture of Dorian Gray bold, dazzling, chameleonic – and it is all of those things. But that does not mean that it is enjoyable. There is no pathos here, and this is too shallow a production to hold any true sense of horror or moral enquiry. When Gray finally destroys the painting, and in doing so destroys himself, I felt only relief.

“The Picture of Dorian Gray” is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London SW1Y, until 11 May 2024

[See also: Andrew Scott is superhuman in Vanya]

Content from our partners
Unlocking the potential of a national asset, St Pancras International
Time for Labour to turn the tide on children’s health
How can we deliver better rail journeys for customers?

Topics in this article : ,

This article appears in the 21 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Fractured Nation

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU