'The Trials of Oscar Wilde, Trafalgar Studios'
As I nudged past the greying Quentin-Crisp-esque queens (the very best type of queen if you ask me) and the politely disinterested sixth form English class into the small basement room, I couldn't help but ponder if I had made a bad decision.
I had decided to take the 16th October off some weeks before, as a way to best celebrate the 160th birthday of my hero and idol, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde. The fact that I had a load of paid leave to use up at the same time was entirely coincidental I assure you. I had seen that there was a play based on his trials (people sometime forget there were two trials, the initial libel action of Wilde vs Queensbury, then the subsequent criminal trial of Wilde vs Regina) currently playing at London's Trafalgar Studios.
I jumped at buying tickets, as not only was there to be free booze, but Wilde's grandson himself, Merlin Holland was to be present for a question and answer session afterwards! Head full of rapturous imaginings, I travelled up to London, only to immediately disappoint myself when I realised it was the evening show the extravaganza of free booze and questioning was to be at.
Ho hum. Settling down with a programme and a ludicrously expensive glass of prosecco I was far too awkward to resist getting (seeing as everyone else had one) I waited for the show begin.
Given we were crammed awkwardly into the small basement studio of the theatre, the play didn't really formally begin, more dissolve into existence as John Gorick (Oscar Wilde) made his entrance on stage, re-enacting Wilde's speech from the opening night of 'The Importance of Being Earnest.' Gorick's portrayal is probably the closest I shall getting to seeing Wilde in flesh. At times witty, evasive, catty, kind, selfish, naive or wise but almost always invariably charming. It also helps too that he speaks in suitably mellifluous tones. Franklin Dyall said Wilde's voice was like "brown velvet, played like a cello." Whilst this isn't quite that, I think he makes a jolly decent stab at such a thing anyway. Wilde remains an interesting and flawed character in this play, evoking both sympathy and pity at the depths that his pride and shame takes him to.
This as much as because of Gorick's portrayal as well as the script itself by Merlin Holland & John O'Connor, drawing much from the transcripts of the trials themselves. It would have been so easy to have portrayed Oscar as an epigram-throwing Saint Sebastian but instead the play portrays as something more complex and flawed, something which is ultimately more interesting and human.
Wilde whilst in the dock is out of his traditional comfort zone, that of hurling earth-shattering bon-mots like flower petals. He is not openly angry or upset, but he is most certainly uncomfortable. He tries to twist and turn away the line of questioning from himself, and indeed to turn away any hint of impropriety with all these pretty young men he spends so much time with.
His beautiful, effervescent speech is used to ensnare and strangle him, to drag him down into the muck and mire, it is still horrid to watch, even a century after these events have happened.
Aside from Wilde's portrayal by Gorick, is there much else to say about the play? Well, yes of course, but given that Wilde does literally and metaphorically take centre stage for so much of the action, the supporting cast of Rupert Mason and William Kempsell mainly act as means for Wilde to advance his story forward. However, their respective roles as Edward Clarke, Wilde's defence attorney (Kempsell) and as Edward Carson & Charles Gill, the two respective prosecutors (Mason) deserve special attention for the adroit and adept manner in which they are played, whether hectoring or coddling, wheedling information out of Wilde or witnesses, they definitely grabbed my attention.
After the play I slowly meandered homewards to my awaiting coach, thinking. Was Wilde a martyr? He could have so easily escaped to France (as is mentioned in the play) or have dropped the libel action as soon as possible, when he saw it could never possibly go his way. Was he trying to defend his honour in some doomed, misguided attempt? Was he foolish? Maybe. Maybe any of these things really. Even though Wilde's career was effectively over from the time of his sentence to two years hard labour (despite the later emergence of De Profundis and the Ballad of Reading Gaol) and his name and good reputation was tarnished and thrown into the mud for decades to come (to this day, Holland's family has not gone back to using the name Wilde) he has now become an idol, a symbol for the decadence and beauty of both the late Victorian period and of the aesthete and bohemian movements that he espoused. Perhaps by allowing the bestial and cruel trial to go ahead, he was nailing his colours to the mast and allowing not just himself, but an entire epoch and segment of society to die with him, to instead allow the hypocritical and moralistic popular Victorian society to wash over him and in turn expose their own venalities. I could be wrong, I almost always am. What I am sure of at least is that Wilde remains my love, misguided as he may have been, martyr he may have become, beautiful in mind and soul as he always shall be.
The Trials of Oscar Wilde is on show at Trafalgar Studios 2 in London until the 8th of November. I sincerely hope you go to see it.