BLOG Katya Johnson

NWR Issue 109

‘Wilde Without the Boy’, Aberystwyth Arts Centre

Everyone knows that Oscar Wilde was sent to prison in 1885 for having a homosexual relationship even if they haven’t read a single line of his plays. It’s an infamous episode in British legal and literary history that has now assumed the status of a legend. In his dazzling one-man show at Aberystwyth Arts Centre last week (16 October), Royal Shakespeare Company actor Gerard Logan explored the mixed legacy of Wilde’s incarceration story, through a poignant adaptation of his prison writings, De Profundis (1897) and The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898). Powerful in its simplicity, Logan’s dramatisation offers a raw, deeply felt portrayal of Wilde’s final years in prison as well as an insight into the heart of one of the most controversial figures of his age.

The lights barely had time to dim, or the audience to take in the sparsely furnished stage when Logan’s footfall signalled that Wilde had re-entered his cell in Reading Gaol. Slumped over a small writing desk and inspecting a slender sheaf of manuscript paper, the play opened with a dramatic re-telling of Wilde’s De Profundis – a letter addressed to Wilde’s former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas or ‘Bosie’ as Wilde calls him. As the Latinate title (From the Depths) suggests, the letter has a confessional bent, giving Wilde’s account of his volatile relationship with the Oxford undergraduate. As well as recording his disillusionment with Bosie himself and the extravagant lifestyle they lead together, the letter recounts the spiritual transformation that Wilde undergoes in prison. Wearing a slightly tatty pinstripe suit and marionette-ish makeup, Logan does a fantastic job of capturing this altered, humbled Wilde; striking the right balance between his newly awakened sense of self and the temperament of aristocratic savant non plus ultra that he is famous for being.

Following a rather ghostly intermission, Logan reappeared wearing a loose fitting linen suit symbolising Wilde’s release, and rounded off his play with a spirited recitation of The Ballad of Reading Gaol. If the bitter conclusion of De Profundis is that ‘The secret of life is suffering,’ the take-home message of the poem is no less bleak: ‘All men kill the thing they love,’ writes Wilde. For theatre-goers who are familiar with Wilde from his famous comedy-of-manner plays such as ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’ (1892) and ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ (1895), ‘Wilde Without the Boy’ will appear oddly out-of-character. Indeed, it was clever of Logan to think of dramatising Wilde’s prison writings, for they occupy a completely different semantic register from Wilde’s other dramatic works: they are the result of learning life’s lessons the hard way: two years of hard labour in prison, bankruptcy and social ostracisation. They are very earnest indeed.

The Brechtian sparseness of the staging, simplicity of lighting, and lack of any real props, ensured that the audience’s attention never had cause to wander. Thus they foregrounded what this play is really all about: the pathos and beauty of Wilde’s writing. Stripped of any effects apart from the occasional voice-over, what really carried the play is the quality of Logan’s acting and his ability to deliver his lines – a testament to years of acting with the RSC.

Produced in collaboration with director Gareth Armstrong, whom Logan worked with on other solo shows, ‘Wilde Without the Boy’ had a successful run at Edinburgh and the rest of the UK where Logan has been touring with it. In a Q & A session following the performance Logan was happy to answer more technical questions about the play’s making, describing early informal runs of the play for friends in the front room of Armstrong’s house, and the challenges of memorising the chunky text. Logan was also frank about his admiration for Wilde and the work as a whole. Yet he admits that there is something wanting about Wilde’s idolisation of Douglas’s youth and beauty, and refusal to see himself as anything other than a victim of circumstance. This points towards the problematic nature of De Profundis as a whole: the complex motivations that lie behind this ‘honest’, yet one-sided text, ornamented in as many layers as one would expect of someone like Wilde. However, faced with the undeniable power of De Profundis that evening it was difficult to disagree with Logan’s verdict that the writer ‘entered prison as the great Oscar Wilde, left as a greater one’.

Katya Johnson is a PhD student in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University.

‘Wilde Without the Boy’, performed by Gerard Logan and directed by Gareth Armstrong, played at Aberystwyth Arts Centre on 16 October













       


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