The Trials of Oscar Wilde is Mappi Mundi and Theatre Mwldan’s best collaboration yet. Bringing together the story of Oscar Wilde’s downfall with recently uncovered transcripts of the original trial Director Richard Nichols paints a portrait of the artist like never before.
The play is skilfully written by Merlin Holland and John O’Connor, Wilde’s grandson and is the first to portray an account of the actual events and what was said verbatim by Wilde in the 100 years since his prosecution by the crown for homosexuality.
Steven Elliot is the embodiment of everything Wilde. We first see him addressing the audience on the opening night of his hugely successful The Importance of being Earnest. This is the man at the height of his popularity, a flamboyant character oozing confidence yet extremely likeable. He is warm, witty and appreciative of his fans. In a time of high Victorian moral and social standards, his works mock the class system and everything it represents.
We next see him in the courtroom, a beautifully ornate set of wood and brass (by Carl Davies), lit by hanging circular lamps and framed by green velvet curtains. Wilde watches the two lawyers pace the red carpet, as he stands in the witness-box, to be cross-examined by the formidable Carson (the first of Wilde’s accusers, played to great effect by Robert Bowman). The trial began with the simple misspelling of a word in a note left for Wilde at his club by Marquis Queensbury (Bowman), the father of Alfred Lord Douglas. The note held one simple and damning phrase, Somdomite.
Wilde was outraged by this suggestion that he was a sodomite and, falling for Queensbury’s trap, proceeded to sue him for criminal libel. Keiron Self is Wilde’s defence lawyer,leading him through every aspect of the trial. Self plays the role with conviction, highlighting Wilde’s many educational achievements and generous financial aid to those less fortunate, later smirking at Wilde’s replies to Carson’s accusations. Yet the trial soon began to take a very different turn and with the introduction of several letters written by Wilde to Douglas, the author found himself being questioned on charges of gross indecency.
Elliot’s fantastic portrayal, makes it feel as if we are in the presence of Wilde himself. The eccentric waistcoats and long flowing coat, the witty one liners that feel tragically out of place in a courtroom. It is clear from the outset that he believes his intelligence and celebrity will save him from his fate. Confusing Carson with talk of his art not displaying any form of opinion, answering one question with another. He misjudges the power of the man before him and makes a fatal era in a flippant remark about the ugliness of a boy he did not kiss.
The trial soon becomes a passionate fight for his art, his compassion for the lower classes, and the meaning of his works, which is combed for any hint of inappropriate suggestion. At times the preposterousness of the situation and the claims that Carson makes towards him, is laughable. At others, quite dark. In the second act (Bowman now posing as Gill, the ferocious lawyer for the crown court) a rather lewd representation of Wilde’s character is presented in his physical reactions towards the young boys who sit on his lap, and allow him to undress them. He talks of the thrill of control like a snake charmer to a gilded snake. This is what the play hangs on. The balance between comedy and darkness.
Francois Pandolfo provides much of the comedy, in his various roles as witnesses to the prosecution against Wilde. From East End blackmailer to a European Professor of massage and chambermaid at the Savoy. Pandolfo has a talent for slipping in and out of character with ease, perfecting the accents and gestures effortlessly. His portrayal of a scene from Dorian Gray is very moving and seems to emulate Wilde’s own emotions when, in the second Act, he talks of his meaning of ‘the love that dare not speak its name,’ the twisting of one man’s love for another into a criminal act. In the final scene, his eyes well as he talks of the beauty of sorrow. A poignant moment which resonates with the viewer, before he is plunged into darkness.
During the two-hour show, the audience becomes the new jury. Enthralled by the case from the early beginnings. As both sides come to their final conclusions, newspaper sellers announce the upcoming verdict amid public cheers. Meanwhile Wilde sits up high in the stand to stage left, having taken on a sombre and aged appearance.
Peter Knight provides the music in this production, basic piano chords with a dark undertone as the trial intensifies. The court scenes are punctuated by voice over extracts (Lynne Seymour and Gwawr Loader) from The Importance of Being Earnest. These are effective in reminding us of the context of the period and the popularity of the man who stood for trial. Wilde’s phrases also tie in nicely with his situation, signposting Carson’s questions of Wilde’s work.
Ceri James’ lighting is particularly effective, darkening over the set, to create a deep red or green when returning to extracts from Wilde’s art. The hanging lamps act as spotlights in the characters in moments of revelation. The second act begins with Wilde standing alone in the courtroom, lit by a solitary lamp. His position as an outcast in a society that once embraced him is all the more poignant.
It’s easy to forget that this production highlights some very important issues that are still relevant today.
As for Wilde, he was an extremely intelligent and witty man, way ahead of his time. This production, which benefits from the involvement of Wilde’s grandson, serves to provide a compelling and thought-provoking experience for all. The trials of Oscar Wilde is a true work of art for an artist who lost everything, but will always be remembered as an icon of British literature.
The trials of Oscar Wilde is touring throughout Wales until 27th May.
Oscar in Bangor:
Mappa Mundi and Theatr Mwldan’s Oscar: