This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com
Showcase trials of celebrities are commonplace nowadays, but the Victorians led the way with two 1895 trials involving the writer Oscar Wilde that have continued to fascinate ever since. Writers Merlin Holland (Wilde’s grandson) and John O’Connor have based this play on the original words spoken during the trials, the first of them being the libel action brought by Wilde against the Marquis of Queensbury for accusing him of indecent acts with men and the second being the consequential criminal prosecution of Wilde for committing those acts. The script is laced with the wit of Wilde himself, but the fact-based format restricts the writers’ ability to delve into Wilde’s character in the way that, for example, David Hare did in The Judas Kiss. Therefore, he needs to rely very heavily on actor John Gorick’s excellent interpretation. Arrogant and slightly flamboyant, standing often with one hand on hip, this is a Wilde who is always putting on a performance for the court, exuding wit and intellectual authority. Yet there are moments in Gorick’s performance when the mask slips and Wilde’s underlying terror is revealed; particularly memorable is the frozen smile that appears when it suddenly dawns that the evidence that he is giving is only serving to incriminate him. Rupert Mason and William Kempsell play the opposing barristers in both trials with suitable gravitas. They also double up as all the minor characters, including a disparate string of witnesses in trial 2. Here Peter Craze’s production makes its only wrong move, because these witnesses are inevitably reduced to comic characters, thereby putting their veracity into question and upsetting the balance of the drama. Sitting in this cramped space, it often feels as if the audience is being asked to become the jury. Yet what is there to judge in these more enlightened days when Queensbury’s accusation would be deemed trivial and Wilde would have broken no law? The answer is that we are being asked to assess the motives of both Wilde before and during the trials and of the society that condemned him. Wilde dug a hole for himself in trial 1 and carried on digging in trial 2, but what fascinates is the reason why he ever picked up the spade. The explanation offered here is that Wilde had become so absorbed in an ethereal world that he had lost touch with reality, unable to distinguish between theoretical concepts and physical acts. Sadly, he was 73 years ahead of his time and he overlooked the fact that his vision, based on the classics and writers such as Shakespeare, was out of step with the laws of the era in which he lived. As to whether or not the juries reached the correct verdicts, Holland’s play is inconclusive. However, it is made clear that Wilde’s superior manner would have alienated those in the court rooms, making it more likely that the juries would have wanted to knock him off the pedestal on which they saw him. It is for this reason that Wilde’s fall from grace reverberates so strongly today when, time after time, the media and the public collude to bring down high profile figures. Humiliated and made to serve a sentence of two years hard labour, Wilde was never to recover and he died at the age of 46 in 1900. His plays and other works live on.
photo: Evolutions Photo
Performance date: 14 October 2014