Come on, it’s ticking off on the fingers time — what are the five things you know about Oscar Wilde? Irish, witty, camp, wrote The Importance of Being Earnest and went to prison for sodomy? If that’s the middle and both ends of your Wildean knowledge, you’ll find this show highly educational if not quite endlessly entertaining: for a play about buggery, it’s surprisingly bland.
The drama is initiated by Wilde’s suing the Marquess of Queensberry for libel when he left a note at his club saying "to Mr Oscar Wilde, posing as a ‘somdomite’ (sic)": it’s the late 19th century equivalent of a troll’s tweet, and made us wonder if there’s a contemporary updating to be made of the story.
Using recently-discovered transcripts of the 1895 court cases, author (and incidentally Wilde’s grandson) Merlin Holland has put together as faithful as possible a three-hander to illustrate Oscar’s tragic fall from lauded playwright to prison inmate at the hands of pugilistic bully Queensberry and an uncaring establishment.
It’s a format which has been used before — in Norman Holland’s distinctly funnier To Meet Oscar Wilde one actor plays Oscar and two others portray twenty disparate characters including his wife and mother. But in this more earnest and less Earnest play, John Gorick holds the reliable centre as an imposing if unimpassioned Oscar while William Kempsell and Rupert Mason whirl convincingly around him as the barristers, barrowboys, blackmailers and bums of his occasional acquaintance.
Wilde comes across as quite peevish and self-deluding, blustering that his incriminating personal letters which had to be repurchased from scoundrels were merely works of fiction and poetry, and stubbornly refusing to give up the court case when it's patently obvious he can't win. Some of the arguments seem unrealistic: barrister Edward Carson casts aspersions on Wilde’s men friends for being “under 21” which might have been the age of majority but for sexual consent in Victorian times it was 12 and not raised to 16 until 1929.
What is most fascinating though is not the dissection of Wilde’s poetry for its suspected coded references to underage homosexuality, but the disbelief of the court that Wilde could have had any kind of social relationship with a lower-class person and the horror that he may have ‘dined with a groom’ tells us more about Victorian morality than any of its skirt-gathering over the love that dare not speak its name.
It’s a wonderful legacy that more than a hundred years after his death, we’re still poring over Wilde’s entrails: in fact the Guardian just published a photograph gleaned from prison records suggesting that a ‘little dark-eyed chap’ in Reading Jail may have been Wilde’s lover.
The Trials of Oscar Wilde continues at Trafalgar Studios 2 until 8 November. Runs 2 hours 10 minutes. Tickets from the ATG website. We saw this play on press tickets provided by John Roberts PR.