De Profundis

Oscar Wilde, adapted by Frank McGuinness

Classic Spring Theatre Company

Vaudeville Theatre

From 03 January 2018 to 06 January 2018

Review by Claire Seymour

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Just over 20 years ago, Simon Callow, acclaimed veteran of the one-man show, reminded us of The Importance of Being Oscar. In an extended monologue presented at the Savoy Theatre, woven together from excerpts of Wilde’s work by Irish actor Micheal MacLiammoir, Callow indulged his self-professed desire to ‘be’ Wilde—whom he described, in an interview at the time in the Independent, as "my absolute hero in every possible regard".

Now, Callow has taken on another Wildean challenge: not to ‘be’ the aesthete and artist, but rather to convey Wilde’s own attempt at individual self-realisation as he endeavoured, when incarcerated in Reading Gaol, to conceptualise his own future—his Vita Nuova—in which his suffering and shame could be accepted and transmuted into a humility that would grant him both personal redemption and a more profound vision of the relationship between life and art.

In De Profundis—"from the depths"—Wilde’s voice is heard as he ‘speaks’ to his former lover Lord Alfred Douglas through a letter, composed one page per day in his prison cell. Frank McGuiness’s abridged adaptation of Wilde’s epistle last week formed a brief interlude between Dominic Dromgoole’s A Woman of No Importance and Kathy Burke’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, which previews from Friday 12 January, as part of Dromgoole’s series of Wilde’s work at the Vaudeville Theatre.

In De Profundis, Wilde reflects on the personal, practical and psychological implications of the trial, and Mark Rosenblatt’s production suggests that essentially Wilde puts himself through another ‘trial’, as he interrogates his past and present, and subjects his own aesthetic ethos to some hard questioning.

An imposing, bell-like light is hoisted from the floor to cast a stark circle of light on Callow, seated in a chair, surrounded by isolating blackness. Dressed in a shabby black jacket and plain white shirt, there is a slight raggedness about Callow’s tense, intense Wilde that both conveys his vulnerability and disrupts our own expectations. We, and he, are a long way from green carnations and cello-shaped bronze coats.

Callow communicates all of Wilde’s inner conflicts and contradictions as he reflects on the practical and spiritual ways in which he must re-build his life: how he can both re-construct his public image and accept his own ‘self’.

His acrimonious denunciation of Douglas is imbued with both bitterness and lingering affection. And, there is real pathos as we sense a soul tormented both by public shame and by personal grief and loss: the death of his mother, the accusation that he is unfit to be near his own children. But, as he laments his notoriety and society’s reaction to him, we remember Wilde’s devotion to the cultivation of such infamy and wonder whether his regret is genuine.

He spits and hisses indignant critiques of the "wrong and unjust laws" and "system" that condemn him to imprisonment and distress, and for all his awareness that in order to achieve spiritual renewal he must re-evaluate a life lived in avowal of the amorality of luxury and beauty, and accept physical degradation, the plank-bed, food and deprivations of prison life exacerbate his sorrow and shame. Callow reveals the angry lucidity of Wilde’s excoriation of Society and his weepy self-pity in equal measure.

But, as Callow’s Wilde castigates "dear Bosie"—the son of the man, the Marquess of Queensberry, whose libellous accusation that Wilde had posed "as a somdomite [sic]" spiralled into a legal saga culminating in Wilde’s conviction under a law which "prohibited indecent relations between consenting adult males" and a maximum sentence of two years’ hard labour—he also forgives. For, only through such forgiveness, and suffering, can he himself find self-acceptance:

And the end of it all is that I have got to forgive you. I must do so. I don’t write this letter to put bitterness into your heart but to pluck it out of mine. For my own sake I must forgive you… Terrible as what you did to me was, what I did to myself was far more terrible still.

And yet, while he garners our pity, there remains, amid the honesty and humility, an occasional hint of solipsism about Wilde that reminds us of the self-fashioning individualist who once declared that he was finding it harder and harder to live up to his blue china. De Profundis might be addressed to Bosie but it is, in essence, all about Wilde. He may strive for humility, but not from any external sanction, only within himself.

One challenge facing McGuinness is that De Profundis lacks a coherent argument and structure—probably because Major Nelson’s relaxation of the prison rules permitted Wilde a single quarto sheet which had to be returned each day—and as the 90-minute oration proceeds there is sometimes a sense of revisiting old complaints and wounds. Although Callow occasionally rises from his chair, and steps briefly into the shadows, Wilde’s monologue is essentially delivered from the central pool of unforgiving light.

In De Profundis, Wilde explains that the ideas he is shaping for himself have given him, for the first time since his imprisonment, a real desire to live. But, Callow’s performance—a tour de force of memory, ventriloquism and persuasive characterisation—ironically reminds us that this ‘self-invention’ may be no different from Wilde’s previous endeavours to live a life in imitation of art. Callow’s realisation of Wilde’s self-realisation walks a fine line between sincerity and show.

Callow’s performance is an impressive, extended vision of a ‘self’. But, despite his commitment and intensity, Callow could not quite dispel some doubts from which issued a hesitant detachment. For Wilde’s whole life prior to his incarceration had been a ‘pose’, a performance of hedonistic individualism, and we may wonder whether De Profundis is simply another performance, designed on this occasion to enable its actor-author, Wilde, to achieve 'redemption' for what Society, or he, in his prison cell, deemed respectively his sexual or aesthetic sins.