The Trials of Oscar Wilde
Merlin Holland, John O'Connor
European Arts Company
Trafalgar Studios Studios
It’s 1895 and, following the euphoria and rapturous success from the opening night of Oscar Wilde’s latest play The Importance of being Earnest, the man of the moment finds himself at the centre of an untimely and unexpected series of scandals. What follows is two trials: firstly his own libel action against the Marquess of Queensbury and then a criminal prosecution for gross indecency.
With all the wit and blatant confidence described by some as downright arrogance, we find Wilde in the dock fighting for his freedom, family, pride and reputation. We know he loses the lot, of course, and he goes down for the act of sodomy—a serious misdemeanour at the time.
The Trials of Oscar Wilde exposes a darker and seedier side of the man known to many as quite simply a literary genius. Using transcripts from the original trials, John Gorick is superb as Wilde, not simply because of the uncanny likeness both in stature and demeanour but as an orator of some of the lies and lines of desperation to come from Wilde as he slips from honourable gentleman to a unsavoury character, fit only for somewhere lower than the gutter.
The credibility of Peter Craze’s production is heightened further by the fact it’s co-authored by Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland and John O’Connor. Holland is not just a direct descendant but he’s studied the works of Wilde and published a new edition of his letters, making him the perfect candidate to oversee this hefty piece of historical drama.
The diversity of both Rupert Mason and William Kempsell, who play thirteen different characters between them, is both astonishing and commendable. From ruffians of the underclass to the Marquess of Queensbury, each character makes a cameo appearance during the trials to both discredit and expose Wilde for the crimes of which he’s accused.
Anything more than the table, two chairs and healthy pile of manuscripts and documents on stage would have been distracting and unnecessary. This is a play stripped back to the bare essentials and it’s all the richer and digestible because of it.
It’s perhaps fitting that in the week of Oscar Wilde’s 160th birthday he makes a triumphant return to the West End. It’s also completely appropriate it’s not with one of his most celebrated works, but with a play about his own weaknesses, failings, strengths and inadequacies as a man—and where he’s slap bang at the centre of all the action.
Reviewer: Thomas Magill