Seeing Kip Williams in the rear view mirror

Ambition has defined Kip Williams’ eight years as Sydney Theatre Company’s artistic director – and with enough of it realised for his tenure to have been a significant step up from that of his predecessor, Andrew Upton. Williams’ ambition will primarily live in many theatre-goers memories thanks to his “cine-theatre” productions, the apotheosis of which was his 2020 adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Kip Wlliams. Photo: James Brickwood.

Cine-theatre – his innovative use of videoing on-stage action and simultaneous live screening it, as an adjunct to conventional staging – began with Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer in 2015, a production that may well have played a part in his securing the artistic directorship in 2016. Aged just 30, Williams was STC’s youngest appointee to the role. Thereafter cine-theatre became something of a trademark – to the fury of some and fascination of others.

Examples include 2018’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, which had peculiar pertinence to the Trump phenomenon, with Hugo Weaving giving a towering performance as Brecht’s monstrous protagonist. “Multiple cameras follow every move,” said my review, “and project onto a big screen what even those in front rows would never see: the moles and nose-hairs of faces filled with fear or malice.”

But it was in Dorian Gray that Williams stretched the concept most – as it did our imaginations. The story of a portrait that ages while its subject retains eternal youth was ripe for being partly told on screens, and Williams astutely used the videoing – both process and outcome – to enhance the theatricality rather than diminish it. The concept allowed Eryn Jean Norvill (making a welcome return to STC) to play all 26 roles by herself. This involved her interacting with prerecorded videos of herself, including, unforgettably, with multiple characters seated at a dinner party.

A Picture of Dorian Gray. Photo: Daniel Boud

A new development for Dorian Gray was having the usually static screens capable of flying up and down and tracking horizontally, while, in the opium-den sequence, grotesque distortions were employed. Williams and his collaborators brought Wilde’s tale to theatrical life in ways that were equally disturbing and magical and Sarah Snook currently stars in the production in London.

Williams and the same team of creatives revisited similar techniques in 2022’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. This time the cine-theatre was especially effective in giving a film-noirish rendering of the work’s intrinsic gothic horror. There was, however, an inevitable sense of supping from the same cup a second time, and therefore missing Dorian’s sheer thrill of the new.

Photo: Nic Walker.

Not all Williams’ cine-theatre experiments worked, with Julius Caesar a case of the technology – this time with the actors filming each other using smartphones – obstructing the drama. He’d slashed Shakespeare’s text and mass-murdered the cast until it required just three actors, with the play performed in the round for the first time at Wharf 1 Theatre. While this charged sections with an undeniable intensity, more often that quality was diluted by our eyes continually being tugged between the action on the stage and the four-side screen above the actors’ heads, so the device became self-indulgent, cancelling any chance of illuminating the play afresh.

Intermittently Williams reminded us that he could still do commendable work without a camera in sight, too. For Kate Mulvany’s 2018 epic adaptation of Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South trilogy, he marshalled 18 actors across 78 scenes and six hours’ of stage time in an entirely different model of his gargantuan theatrical ambition finding fulfilment.

His programming, although better than Upton’s, has still wandered into the wasted opportunities of dubious commissions and crass plays. Thankfully, these were largely offset by such examples of sheer excellence as, inside just two months of 2023, for instance, Mitchell Butel’s joint STC/State Theatre Company South Australia presentation of Albee’s hilarious The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? and Shari Sebbens’ production of August Wilson’s potent Fences.

Williams championed gender parity and First Nations voices, and generally made good decisions about which of the swag of theatres at his disposal hosted each production. Comedies, from dubiously broad to extremely witty (and seldom directed by Williams himself) have been another hallmark of his programming, including Sarah Giles’s lavish production of The Importance of Being Earnest, starring Helen Thompson.

Before becoming artistic director, Williams’ STC shows had included an ill-conceived Romeo and Juliet, but also a performance that marked him out as a director to watch: 2012’s Under Milk Wood, in which he displayed a keen ear for catching all the music (and humour) in Dylan Thomas’ wondrous text. Little did we then know that he had a technological alter ego who wanted to be a filmmaker of sorts.