IN BRIEF Oscar Wilde’s downfall meticulously presented as two court cases which demands acute concentration, spotlighting the literary wit as brilliant, but also human and fallible, earnestly presented in convincing performances
This is a fascinating piece which astonishingly shows us that, a hundred years before Facebook and Twitter, one misplaced quip in the public domain effectively ended the career (and later, the life) of literary great Oscar Wilde.
Written by Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland and John O’Connor (who also directs) from the European Arts Company, this is an engrossing examination of the actual trials of Oscar Wilde. The show’s first act covers the first trial, where Wilde accused the father of his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, Lord Queensbury, of criminal libel, and the second (collapsed) and third trials in the second act where Wilde himself was the accused (the charge being gross indecency).
The staging is simple but effective (a carpet, a few chairs and a string curtain backdrop) allowing us to focus on the characters themselves, with each character quickly and deftly drawn by a cast of four, two of whom assume the supporting roles.
John Gorick as Wilde portrays him with convincing assuredness, a mercurial mix of private and public that were always at tension within him, given that homosexual acts at the time were a criminal offence. The tension extends to the knowledge that this was a public appearance in which Wilde was not fully in control, and many underlying factors were swirling around the case and its potential outcomes.
Rupert Mason skilfully underplays the prosecuting counsel Gill who gives Wilde “enough rope” to incriminate himself in the eyes of “a jury of shopkeepers”, waiting for his moments with dramatic aplomb.
Whilst undoubtedly a very wordy show, the fascination lies with being able to hear the actual words spoken between Wilde and the lawyers; in quoting the actual court transcripts it presents the nearest we are likely to experience hearing a conversation with Wilde. One can hear the particular language chosen which underlines inferences in the prosecution’ s approach to influence the jury
We as an audience can hear the human side of Wilde’s singular mind under pressure, lit by bolts of wit, but at other times crashingly human and fallible. The court extracts are punctuated with extracts from Wilde’s plays which are used ironically.
What I must say I have a small issue with is that as we all know, words on a page carry no colour of their own. Sometimes intonation will do astounding things to the meaning of the simplest words. So, although we are “hearing” extracts from the court transcripts, what we are not hearing (and cannot hear) is the actual emphasis placed at that time, instead an inferred emphasis which naturally colours our opinion at certain key moments; however, in fairness, these genuinely seem to be representative to the outcomes.
A credit to all the actors, the parts were lengthy and detailed and were delivered faultlessly. It was a fascinating evening, brilliantly bringing to life dry court papers. Although it required considerable audience concentration to ensure we didn’t miss anything, to their credit, the audience we were with were gripped, listening silently and attentively from start to finish. It was in effect like being a jury member, and a unique evening bringing to vivid theatrical life a significant moment in history.
A final footnote. Oscar Wilde’s conviction (for gross indecency) was pardoned (as part of a blanket pardon) as recently as 2017.
THE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE tours until June. Details here