The Trials Of Oscar Wilde

Court rooms can often make for high drama, but unfortunately in this case the transcript of ‘the trial of the century, proves to be less than gripping.

Wilde may well have observed, ‘It was only in the theatre that I lived’, but The Trials of Oscar Wilde injects very little life into him.

The Trials of Oscar Wilde at the Greenwich Theatre, and on tour till mid April, is co-written by Wilde’s grandson, Merlin Holland and director John O’Connor. The play scores highly on the authenticity of its subject matter, as it uses the words spoken in the court cases in which Wilde was involved in 1895. At that time he was well established as a writer and was enjoying considerable success. His judgment, however, was less secure. He took offence at a calling card left at his club by the Marquess of Queensberry that read, ‘For Oscar Wilde, posing as Somdomite [sic]’. Others saw the card and Wilde subsequently brought a prosecution against him for criminal libel; an unwise move, given that the noble gentleman was the father of Wilde's lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. His Lordship disapproved of the relationship and Wilde, realised his mistake once details of his private life emerged and possible interpretations of several of passages in his writings were explored to his detriment. He ultimately dropped the case. Queensberry’s pugilistic temperament, however, left him unsatisfied. He launched and won a financial counterclaim against Wilde, whose assets were seized and sold at a humiliating public auction, leaving the author bankrupt. Worse was to come. By now he was down but not out. Queensberry next made all the evidence and names he had collected available to the police who brought twenty-five charges of gross indecency against Wilde. Despite his plea to the contrary he endured two embarrassing trials and was ultimately found guilty. The judge imposed the maximum sentence of two years' hard labour.

The story is so well known that telling it here is hardly a spoiler. It also means that there are no surprises in the storyline of the play, which puts pressure on the four actors, in various roles, to provide compensation in their performances. It’s unfortunate that they don’t rise to the occasion. John Gorick has the looks of Oscar Wilde but provides an effete portrayal of the Irishman in a studied pose that leaves him looking and sounding like a curiosity with whom it is difficult to make any emotional attachment. The bewigged Rupert Mason and Patrick Knox give routine performances as barristers, respectively playing Edward Carson, on behalf of Lord Queensberry, and Sir Edward Clarke. They are, of course, hampered by a script tied to the original courtroom rather than one devised for the stage. Benjamin Darlington assumes the roles of Charles Parker, a valet and Alfred Wood, a rent boy, but in both cases they verge on being caricatures of lower class individuals. The same can be said for other portrayals the cast gives between them. Antonio Migge, the Savoy hotel’s “professor of massage,” is shown as an over-the-top and rather ludicrous Italian while Jane Cotter, a chambermaid, bears a remarkable resemblance to Dan Leno as Widow Twankey.

The spartan furnishings of a few very ordinary chairs are placed on opposite sides of a very large and very vivid square of red carpet, whose symbolism I am still pondering. It is matched by a tasseled backdrop curtain of similar hue that forms the stage curtain at a performance of The Importance of Being Earnest, which was playing at the time of the trials. Interjections from that play act as a reminder of this but otherwise add nothing to the drama. Bland lighting, with the exception of an unfathomable sentencing scene, and some faded projections do nothing to help the situation.

Wilde may well have observed, ‘It was only in the theatre that I lived’, but The Trials of Oscar Wilde injects very little life into him.

Reviews by Richard Beck

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The Blurb

Following a sell-out west End run, European Arts Company returns to Greenwich with this brilliant dramatisation of the libel and criminal trials of Oscar Wilde, written by his grandson Merlin Holland. 

Thursday 14 February 1895 was the triumphant opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest and the zenith of Wilde's career. Less than 100 days later, he found himself a common prisoner sentenced to two years hard labour. So what happened during the trials and what did Wilde say? Was he persecuted or the author of his own downfall? Using the original words spoken in court, we can feel what it was like to be in the company of a flawed genius - as this less than ideal husband was suddenly reduced to a man of no importance.

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