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Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde

Daily Telegraph, 24th March 1999, Charles Spencer

Oscar Wilde once told André Gide that he had put his genius into his life and only his talent into his work. It’s a great line, though not quite true. ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ is the greatest high comedy in the English language and likely to remain so for as long as people keep going to the theatre.

Nevertheless, time has been unkind to much of Wilde’s writing, particularly the embarrassing purple passages of lush, art-for-art’s sake excess, while his life describes the perfect arc of classical tragedy.

Here was a great man brought low by a tragic flaw, his consuming love for a worthless man and his reckless appetite, in his own phrase, for feasting with panthers. Yet, in his terrible last years, first in prison and then in exile and ill-health, he seemed to achieve a kind of redemption through suffering, and his flourishes of wit and gallantry pierce the heart.

The story has often been told and at first I feared that Moisés Kaufman’s account of the three trials that wrecked Wilde’s life were too familiar to achieve much impact. Gradually, however, the tension of the courtroom cross-examinations, the overriding poignancy of the story and the commanding strength of Michael Pennington’s performance turn this into a dramatically charged and deeply moving experience.

Kaufman, who is both writer and director, at first opts for unadorned docudrama, but there is a real dramatic skill here. The transcripts from the trial – in which Wilde initially accused the Marquess of Queensberry of criminal libel only to end up facing charges of gross indecency himself – is accompanied by a host of other viewpoints. We hear extracts from Wilde’s work, most notably that unhappiest of love letters ‘De Profundis’. The dreadful Bosie recites from his self-serving memoirs, friends of Wilde’s such as Frank Harris and Bernard Shaw offer their own perspective, while the clerks of the court read from contemporary newspaper accounts.

Then, after the interval, when Wilde finds himself in the dock, the rituals of courtroom drama are interrupted with less naturalistic sequences. The blackmailing rent boys give their evidence in their underwear, posing on bentwood chairs like hoofers in a Fosse musical; an appalling pseudy present-day academic is wheeled on to opine that “Oscar’s project (sic) was less about sodomy and more about art” (useful to have got that learnt); and, at the end, the reality of the trial dissolves into an expressionist nightmare as Wilde cracks under the strain.

There are occasional misjudgements, most notably an embarrassing impersonation of Queen Victoria, but for the most part Kaufman manages a powerful blend of information and drama.

Pennington, an actor who goes from strength to strength, achieves a startling resemblance to Wilde and plays him with great insight. In the early scenes, his patronising contempt for court proceedings and his air of superiority are generally off-putting. You begin to understand why he so outraged Victorian society. Yet Pennington also captures the flashes of wisdom and wit in adversity, the hurt humanity and the depth of his love for the odious Bosie. His downfall is harrowing to behold.

In comparison, everyone else on the stage seems smaller, but Nick Waring memorably suggests Lord Alfred Douglas’s prettiness, petulance and stupidity, James Aubrey is a notably boorish and brutal Queensberry and there is fluent support from Clive Francis and William Hoyland as the leading barristers.  

It’s an absorbing, rewarding evening, though one that caused this reviewer a pang: The Daily Telegraph, I regret to report, was one of the newspapers that rejoiced in Wilde’s downfall.

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