Friday 5th April 2019 at Harrogate Theatre (Studio).
Every time I see an Oscar Wilde-related production I fall all over again for the sheer grit and elegance of the man. While his satirical plays with eagle-eyed social commentary most often find their way into our theatres now, this production, rather uniquely, brings one of his letters and one of his ballads. Wilde Without the Boy is a dramatisation of De Profundis along with a reading of The Ballad Of Reading Gaol in a double Bill Of Wilde’s more melancholic, wounded writings.
Wilde’s is a sad and enraging history. Initially celebrated as an artist and wordsmith, he was wrenched from his pedestal and imprisoned when found guilty of committing homosexual acts. His considerable renown was reduced to living in a time when even after release, no one would buy or sell an Oscar Wilde work, leaving him to publish under the code C33, referring to his prison number.
Having had two years on his hands in prison, Wilde seemingly used much of that time penning an epic letter to the lover who led to his incarceration. The young Lord Alfred Douglas, known as Bosie, had the most profound impact upon the deeply sensitive Wilde as illustrated in this intensive sixty minute one man performance (helped along by recordings which play the audio of the courtroom to illustrate the cruelty of Wilde’s public treatment).
We meet Wilde as he awaits transport which will take him from Reading Gaol to Pentonville to mask his release from the press. Unusually for the time apparently, his writings completed during his imprisonment are returned to him and it is going over this work which prompts him to share with us his beating, bleeding heart, speaking to us en masse as if we are the one soul he still feels beholden to: Bosie.
Wilde was an intensely and immensely talented wordsmith and in his writings to Bosie he rains down his feelings like a tempest. There are ebbs and flows as he meanders through the various stages of his infatuation and his heartbreaks – plural, for apparently Bosie did not return the deep dedication of Wilde, instead choosing to make Wilde a fawning fan and a bankroller.
Directed by Gareth Armstrong, Gerard Logan gives a compelling performance as Wilde. It’s no easy road to take to single-handedly recite a personal letter from Oscar Wilde in a darkened room for an hour and make it engaging. Logan’s performance places Wilde on an ever shifting spectrum of emotion. The beauty of the writing is brought fully into being by Logan’s expressive delivery which is a masterclass in reciting, diction and musicality. Just as Wilde’s letter flits and teeters between memories and emotions, so too does Logan’s melodic delivery – something we see in greater detail when he recites The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
After an interval, Logan provides something of a bonus half hour of poetry with this reading of The Ballad of Reading Gaol and it is the poetry recital which benefits most from the emotive musical accompaniment from composer Simon Slater. I will say that the recital doesn’t hold attention as well as the dramatisation, which is a shame. I think it’s purely down to performance time because Logan’s delivery remains uniformly excellent and expressive. The poem itself is brilliant in its brutality and I’ve enjoyed reading over it again this afternoon (texts are available at the performance) but there’s less to capture us in a lengthy recital as there is in a dramatisation which makes better use of movement and other performance devices.
Back to Act 1 and De Profundis then. With all the aestheticism and feelings upon feelings going on, there are times when the whole thing feels deeply melodramatic and affected. Yet we must remember the context. Yes, Wilde may well have been this tempestuous, slightly infantile and delicate in communication and delivery. His personal writings may well simply be an extension of his art as playwright and poet. But the stark reality is also worth remembering.
Here is a man imprisoned by the efforts and venom of the father of his beloved, no longer enjoying the attentions of the man for whom he was imprisoned. Here is a man publicly humiliated and stripped of all his earned finery and the promise of a bright future. The bottom line is that this is an important work of social significance, recognising the pain and persecution of a man many primarily know and love as a sassy comic talent.
To see Wilde Without the Boy is to see Wilde as few heading to the theatre these days do. Wilde was undoubtedly a brilliant entertainer, but it seems he wore his romantically fearless heart on his sleeve, and he suffered greatly for it.
Wilde Without the Boy continues to tour until May 16th 2019 and you can find information about venues and tickets here.