A NEW EYE ON AN OLD SADNESS: THE WILDE TRIAL RECREATED
This is fascinating: the playwright John O’Connor and Oscar Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland mark the centenary of the great man’s two fatal court appearances by dramatizing some recently disinterred transcripts. There is a great deal of dense verbatim recreation, notably in the first hour when Wilde has – rashly – brought a libel case against the Marquess of Queensberry for that illiterate note accusing him of “posting as a somdomite (sic)” . When he loses and is arrested for the crime itself, the second hour reproduces what it can of the criminal trial.
So it shows Wilde in a newish light, at first fighting flippantly (with green carnation and flippant asides) for his reputation; then more soberly, broke and disgraced, his children’s very toys sold at auction, trying to keep at least his freedom. We hear his flamboyant defence of any artist to express himself in any damn way he likes, set against the prim prosecutor’s view of ‘normal’ and ‘balanced’ discourse. And from time to time, we catch him on edge, uncertain, suddenly aware that this is going horribly wrong.
The exchanges raise wide issues: of artistic freedom, of defiant individuality – constantly he pleads his right to talk in “moods of paradox, of fun” – but also of Victorian society’s revulsion from his social mixing with the young and the louche: “feasting with panthers”. Why ply a mere valet with champagne? he is asked, and scores a rare point “What gentleman would stint his guests?”.
But it sours: exhaustingly (for Wilde) the barrister Carson reiterates not only lines from the stolen letters – Bosie’s “slim gilt soul”, red rosepetal lips, etc, but also detailed paragraphs from The Picture of Dorian Gray. We hear the judge’s thundering absurdity about the “worst case he has ever tried” – this in an age of frequent murders and child prostitution – and the legal pomposities of “Acts of gross indecency, against the peace of our lady the Queen, her crown and dignity”. We cheer (but shudder, knowing the end) at Wildean ripostes like “Yes, I gave Alfonso a hat with a bright ribbon. But I was not responsible for the ribbon”. We respect the desperate lofty lines about pure and perfect Platonic love, but know that regarding the carnality he was pretty certainly lying on oath. Because he had to.
John Gorick plays Wilde: the right look, and an accomplished air of self-protective arrogance, but he does not quite have the ability to deepen and nuance the interpretation in this very difficult verbatim task, freeing himself only with the rare interpolations of Wilde’s letters and other writings. But maybe he should not attempt characterization too much: we are watching for history as much as for theatre. The other two players – Rupert Mason and William Kempsell – adroitly play barristers and various witnesses, Mason particularly good switching between Queensberry, Carson, a creepy comedian-cum-blackmailer, and a myopic hotel chambermaid.
It isn’t pure theatre, but has deserved its European tour, and fills an important place in the record of homosexual oppression and of one flawed, courageous, tormented and ill-starred genius.
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