‘My experience was not #MeToo, it was #HerToo’: Eryn Jean Norvill on her life-changing return to the stage | Australian theatre

When audiences rise to their feet, night after night, in a swelling standing ovation for Eryn Jean Norvill who plays 26 characters on stage and screen in Sydney Theatre Company’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, the actor is feeling one thing: “I am in shock”.

“I’ve come from the most isolated period of my life and to step back into a sense of communion with an audience, and with myself as someone who makes art, it is overwhelming to have that connective tissue so loudly yelled at me – Yes! Yes, we are all part of this community. It is such a stark contrast from where I’ve been … it’s been quite a lonely time,” she says.

Norvill, 37, is one of Australia’s most talented stage actors. She has thrilled audiences with her striking interpretations of the young women in Chekhov, Shakespeare, Miller, Gogol and Churchill. And Dorian Gray, directed by Kip Williams, is a career-defining performance: a one-woman showcase in which Norvill populates each character in Oscar Wilde’s world, switching between them through just a turn of her head, a change of voice and stance, and rapid-fire wig and costume swaps. In one scene she might play a number of roles live, in dialogue with each other and more: pre-recorded characters that move across the stage on screens, in an astonishing stagecraft – supplemented by live filming – that makes it easy for the audience to believe they are watching a full cast.

Eryn Jean Norvill was described as ‘one of the most gifted actors of her generation’ in the Guardian’s five-star review of A Picture of Dorian Gray. Photograph: Daniel Boud

The show got a five-star review from Guardian Australia when it premiered in 2020, before it toured to Adelaide festival; it’s currently enjoying a return season in Sydney, and is soon to open in Melbourne, ahead of New York and London seasons.

But for many, her name rings familiar for other reasons. In 2017, Norvill was called to be the key witness in a defamation trial brought against the Daily Telegraph by actor Geoffrey Rush, after the newspaper reported that Sydney Theatre Company had received a complaint about the Hollywood actor’s behaviour during his time starring in a production of King Lear – an allegation which Rush denied. Norvill wasn’t named by the Daily Telegraph, but she couldn’t remain anonymous for the trial – which Rush ultimately won. The court rejected the newspaper’s truth defence, awarding Rush $2.9m in damages.

Norvill did not go to the press; in fact the newspaper’s barrister told the court she “desperately, desperately wanted to stay out of the limelight”. She had made the complaint privately, but found herself in a media storm.

She says there is a huge difference between choosing to speak up and being thrust into the light, and it has had a life-changing effect on her.

“My experience was not #MeToo, it was #HerToo,” she says. “My choice to participate was taken away from me by the media. I really don’t like when decisions are made without you or for you, no one likes that, but particularly when it reshapes your entire sense of self and reality. Choice has become deeply important to me, and my choice to now engage with the media again is quite –” she pauses here “– brave.”

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For both legal and personal reasons, Norvill does not want to talk about what happened during the season of King Lear or the trial. She has a lot to say but today is not the day to say it. “I will speak, I know that,” she says. “But it will have to be in my own words and in the time of my own choosing. I want to be sure that my words have meaning and impact.”

What she will say is how much the experience has changed her. “I feel very different,” she says. “I have less respect for authority. I am more hopeful than I was, and more cynical, at the same time.”

Her trust was broken in lots of different ways: “As a citizen, as a woman, as an artist, as a community member, and also trust with myself. The way I had engaged in the world, with the arts community and my career – the pillars that kept that upright – just fell down. I needed to completely reshape my worldview, and I’m still doing that.”

Eryn Jean Norvill at the Sydney Theatre Company.
‘I am more hopeful than I was, and more cynical, at the same time.’ Photograph: Daniel Boud/The Guardian

Norvill is warm, intelligent and generous in conversation. She listens as much as she talks. She is neither guarded nor performing. She seems like a woman who has been through a lot and no longer gives any fucks.

She’s wearing a T-shirt with line drawings of Cher and the words “I Am A Rich Man”. She explains that Cher’s mother once advised her to marry a rich man. The pop star replied, “Mom, I am a rich man”. “I love that,” Norvill says.

During the last four years while the #MeToo movement rolled on, and many actors who chose to speak out felt the sting of professional consequences, Norvill took some time to reshape her creative life, while avoiding interviews and the publicity circuit.

She worked as dramaturg with director and longtime collaborator Kip Williams on Lord of the Flies; appeared in TV show Preppers; narrated audiobooks; started writing her own commission for Sydney Theatre Company; and co-founded Safe Theatres Australia with actor Sophie Ross, an organisation that has driven new policies around rehearsal procedures, intimacy training and safe avenues for complaint and redress. “We made change happen,” Norvill said. “Cultural change is slow, very slow, but it’s happening.”

She’s now digging into making her own work. “I don’t know whether I’ll be able to do a play again,” she says. “The first half of my career was very traditional, I did a lot of Shakespeare and Chekhov, and that helped me cultivate a lot of skills. But as a woman, it didn’t serve my sense of imagination or rigour or my hunger. Something about [Dorian Gray] is ambitious enough to make me feel really engaged every night, because it is so emotionally splayed, I get to use every part of my humanity and all of my skillset – and I want to do that more. I want to do the funnies more.”

Norvill discovered her “clown” when she left Sydney to study acting at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne, and later trained with the legendary French clown Philippe Gaulier, who is renowned for insulting his students. Her clown skills are clearly visible in her virtuosic performance in Dorian Gray, where she switches voice, posture, costume, facial hair and various Snapchat filters continuously.

“This show is incredibly playful and a lot of that has come from my background in clowning – but also my newfound sense of belligerence,” she says, laughing. “The most wonderful thing about humour is when it’s butted up against devastation. That is a skill I’ve honed in the last four years: surviving through a sense of humour. There is grace in things that are terrible and hilarious. And Dorian is two of those things together, which is what it feels like to be a human: to be terrible and hilarious.”

The wigs are terrible and hilarious too.

“The wigs! And the fat suit! Making this show, I wanted to make everyone in the rehearsal room guffaw as loudly as I could. It’s great to see a woman play a fat old barrister – it’s very rare, at least in my career. I don’t think I’ve seen that a lot and I don’t know why. I think it’s changing but not fast enough. When I say I don’t want to do another play, I mean I don’t know if I want to repeat those shapes of women that are not as complex as what I feel like as a woman or a person in the world.”

Eryn Jean Norvill
‘I want to do the funnies more’: Norvill backstage at Sydney Theatre Company. Photograph: Daniel Boud/The Guardian

Norvill says she has never planned her career and is just living in the present – but Dorian Gray and working with Williams has been a major turning point.

“I’m yet to grasp what’s going on with this show,” she says. “We didn’t know if it was going to work, we took so many risks and leaps of faith, it was a relief that people liked it. The show, it runs me over. It’s all live, so things go wrong: sometimes I trip, or the technology fails.” (The day after this interview, Norvill fell on stage four minutes before the end of the play. She took the following matinee off to rest before returning two nights later.)

She says it’s “exhilarating” when the show works, but when something fails, she looks to the audience and offers a wink to say let’s try that again. “There is something about that that feels important and meaningful. The audience is there to catch me, they are willing me to keep going.”

Before each show, Norvill does morning exercises to warm up her body, followed by vocal warms up and a sinus-clearing steam. “When I get into the theatre, I spend two hours doing things like eating the right amount of food so I can talk for two hours on stage without vomiting –” she laughs “– and I start drinking liquids, because the amount I sweat in the show is incredible. And then I start getting all of my mouth working.

“I play such a gamut of different voices from high to low to gravelly and lots of different accents, I have to get the articulators really primed. I have two mics in my hair in case one fails. If I’m tired they make me a bit louder, which is nice – that’s usually at the back end of the week.”

Eryn Jean Norvill as Lord Henry Wotton, Mr Erskine of Treadley, Lady Agatha, The Duchess of Harley, Sir Thomas Burdon, Mrs Vandeleur and, above, Dorian Gray.
Eryn Jean Norvill as Lord Henry Wotton, Mr Erskine of Treadley, Lady Agatha, The Duchess of Harley, Sir Thomas Burdon, Mrs Vandeleur and, above, Dorian Gray. Photograph: Daniel Boud

To unwind at night, Norvill makes a cup of tea or a whiskey to sip with some favourite tunes. “Music is a huge part of the way I fuel myself at the beginning and at the end of the show. At the beginning, I can’t listen to lyrics, because my head is too full of words. At the end it’s any fierce female pop star. At the moment, I’ve gone back to Formation on the Lemonade album by Beyoncé because she is incredible, and Christine and the Queens – and sometimes Judas Priest.” She smiles. “I love Judas Priest.”

A one-person show can be draining, she says, even when surrounded by technical crew. “I don’t get to look into the eyes of another actor and see them shift and transform. I’m generating the entire arc of the story and it’s hard work.”

But when the applause comes, Norvill finds it “deeply rejuvenating”.

“That’s the only reason why I can get up and try again every night – to have that sense of risk and endeavour celebrated is rejuvenating for the audience and me. Something about the core of this tale is that we are all trying to be the best humans we can be; we try to be good in the world, or try to be better, or persist. It’s really hard to be human in the world.”

What’s next for Norvill?

She takes a sip of water and thinks.

“I want to make work that pushes what theatre can be – and something inappropriate. I’m not sure where the need to be inappropriate has come from,” she says, smiling.

“But the sense of civility doesn’t serve me. I don’t know who it serves, but it certainly doesn’t serve me, so I want to challenge that as much as I can. It feels important. Intuitively, I feel that I need to make something that isn’t appropriate.”

  • The Picture of Dorian Gray is at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney until 14 May, then Arts Centre Melbourne as part of Rising festival from 5 June