The details of Oscar Wilde’s trials may have been hidden from the Victorian public in the name of public decency but nowadays, thanks to countless biographies and documentaries, we know the facts pretty well. Working from rarely seen courtroom shorthand records of the trials, Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland and co-writer John O’Connor have created The Trials of Oscar Wilde: a verbatim piece presented as snippets of courtroom drama, soliloquies and sections from the play that premiered just months before his sentencing, ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’.
This format makes the piece feel disjointed in places and the scenes between Oscar and the lawyers become repetitive towards the middle of the piece. However, the performances of the tiny three man cast easily paper over these cracks. John Gorick’s poised and arrogant Wilde is exceptional, particularly as he begins to crumble, showing a full and impressive emotional range. His self-satisfied smile as he rebuts the Prosecution’s questions with smug wit infuriates the audience but his wide-eyed nervousness as the final trial draws to a close demands pity.
Gorick is supported by Rupert Mason and William Kempsell who play a whole host of characters (from an Italian ‘Professor of Massage’ – Kempsell – to a Savoy hotel chamber maid – Mason in drag) thanks to quick changes and a catalogue of accents. Kempsell’s strengths lie in the comedic parts he plays, offering a welcome lighter air to a play we all know from the beginning will have a tragic conclusion. Mason’s portrayal of the aggressive prosecution lawyer Edward Carson is one of the highlights of his roles but I also enjoyed his growling Queensberry. Having one actor playing both prosecutor and Prosecution lends a claustrophobia to the production that brilliantly highlights the downfall of Wilde, a man hounded by his critics out of the theatres and out of society first to prison and then to his death. His trial and castigation was, the play suggests, necessary in the eyes of society: a plot to finally get rid of a man who pushed the boundaries a little too far. He stood in the dock for his aesthetics as much as for his acts of ‘indecency’.
This performance is prefaced by the perfect accompaniment, a lecture from Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland in which – equal measures defensive and critical – he calls Oscar “the high priest of decadence”, admiring his guts and his style but disapproving of the cowardly way he forced public opinion against Bosie with ‘De Profundis’. The Trials of Oscar Wilde is a fitting conclusion to St James Theatre’s ‘Wilde Week’ which has been a strong, fascinating programme overall. If only a few more of Wilde’s glittering comedies had been scheduled to counterbalance the overwhelming tragedy of such a diverse and didactic week of theatre!