The Communion of Lilies
Barons Court Theatre
Peter Dunne’s new play is subtitled "Oscar Wilde in Paris 1899", that is two years after his release from Reading Gaol and a year before his death from meningitis aged only 46.
You might therefore expect this to be a documentary study of a depressed and hard-up Wilde. Estranged from his wife and parted from Lord Alfred Douglas, he is living under the name Sebastian Melmoth at the Hôtel d’Alsace where, he is reported to have said, "My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go." However, though it draws its situation from life and there is a scattering of Wilde quotes, this is a fiction that bills itself as a comedy and is more a piece of Grand Guignol fantasy than factual biography.
Dunne begins not with Wilde but with a mysterious figure in a cowled cloak confronting a diminutive figure whom he thinks is post-impressionist Henri de Toulouse Lautrec but who claims he’s a pastry chef, not a painter. He is an emissary from Hell come to claim Toulouse-Lautrec's soul, destined to go there for “crimes against art”. A magical pass renders the pastry chef dead and, extracting a symbolic piece of gemstone from the body, the exotically accented Grim Reaper sets out for his next victim: Oscar Wilde.
But where is Oscar? No-one has heard of him, though Sebastian Melmoth is well-known in the hotel bar where the hooded stranger is making his enquiries. Barman Albert has helped Sebastian get some small commissions and is going to introduce him to a German composer and his American manager, Albert’s colleague Gaston wonders just how close the Albert-Sebastian relationship has become. Soon, Sebastian / Oscar himself arrives with Smithers, an English publisher who is trying to get Wilde to write his memoirs.
Will the Grim Reaper track down Wilde? It’s a tale of white lilies that Wilde presents to his associates; a blue rose a flower girl gives him, of Faustian pacts and a poem to the moon that echoes a chunk of Wilde’s Salomé. All this comes with a portrait of a disillusioned Wilde in a threadbare waistcoat, splashing out other people’s cash and knocking back the absinthe.
Peter Dunne plays his own creation, making Wilde a rather self-consciously flamboyant character, but just pulls back from making him funny so that you can’t help but feel sorry for him and, though the barman and the waiter (Felix O’Brien and Edmund Duff) are a kind of double act and the German comes in wearing a Prussian helmet, on press night perhaps the audience was taking it a little too seriously and the laughs were thin.
The Communion of Lilies is an intriguing oddity that mixes things in a way that it is difficult to pull off. We need a licence to laugh at the Oscar in this lay but our compassion for the real Oscar gets in the way. Richard Igoe’s composer is clearly meant to be a joke, paired with Richard Taylor-Neil’s sidekick manager sporting a deerstalker, Marc Forde’s public-school-type publisher and there is even a brief spurt of barroom can-can dancing, but despite all that we still take Oscar seriously. Perhaps Jed Aukin’s Reaper is just a little too real at first; even his pronunciation of ‘lyelis’ for lilies makes him more sinister than funny. Not until the end when he announces he’s a freelance does he stop being frightening. Igoe’s Lautrec is certainly terrified by him.
Director Sean Turner’s nicely mounted production, which comes complete with an opening glass of absinthe (courtesy Liqueurs de France), succeeds too well in creating that opening atmosphere, some bigger contrast afterwards that labels comic intentions.
Or is perhaps the problem this very intimate space where the actors are almost within touching distance of the entire audience. Perhaps English audiences are just too polite to permit themselves to laugh at people in their faces,.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton