For the run of In Extremis, penned by Complicité member Neil Bartlett, Kean Productions has decided to work with two different casts. Alternating their parts with Fiz Marcus and Charlie Buckland, Kate Copeland and Nigel Fairs took the stage last night.
In Extremis, originally written to commemorate the centenary of Oscar Wilde’s death, is based on a telegram Wilde sent to a friend that he had seen the famous palm-reader Mrs Robinson. Their meeting would have taken place shortly before his trial, in which he would be sentenced for gross indecency, ultimately leading to his early death. The play imagines this meeting, which is re-told by Mrs Robinson, now deceased, ironically speaking with hindsight about her foresight.
A conflicted Wilde confesses to the audience that he needs someone to talk to but does not admit this to Mrs Robinson. Nigel Fairs is good at conveying Wilde’s state of crisis, however when presenting his flamboyant side to Mrs Robinson I missed the notorious arrogance and confidence she reads in his hand.
Kate Copeland deftly balances Mrs Robinson between a town-gossip and a hard-nosed professional. She, in turn, talks the audience through the tricks of the trade, admitting to reading the reactions and behaviour of people as much as the lines on their hands. One can only wonder: Who is deceiving whom?
The play’s action stops and starts as the characters alternate addressing each other and the audience. The frequency of this and the change of pace when the character ‘breaks out’ of a tableau, along with a few overlapping lines, make the play a little chaotic.
The two-hander touches upon Oscar’s familiarity with charlatans: Actors disguising themselves behind their characters as well as the truth bending characters that he created in his plays. On top, of course, his own double life with his wife and family and with his lover Lord Alfred Douglas. It’s full of fact and references – a little prior knowledge of Wilde wouldn’t go amiss.
So apt for modern times, In Extemis reflects on art and celebrity: Their distinction something that Oscar Wilde would be most familiar with. Though he, with the pending trial, claims the audience should only care for the former, records state that he courted fiercely with the latter.
Mrs Robinson then, though foreseeing misfortune, decides to tell Wilde about triumph. Perhaps rightly so, but I’m not sure if this production of In Extremis would have been included in that prediction.