The intimate setting of The Exchange Studio, Maidstone, was the perfect stage for the drama of ‘The Trials of Oscar Wilde’ to unfold. Covering all three of the trials, from the libel trial brought by Wilde against the Marquess of Queensbury through to the following two criminal trials brought against Wilde, it is a heavy brief made light by the witticisms Wilde is famous for.
Done badly, a play depicting the trials of Oscar Wilde could be an audience’s nightmare; however, from tonight’s performance I can safely say that European Arts Company’s production is a very good play.
I don’t say this lightly. The subject matter is one which could so easily have been handled wrongly. Oscar Wilde is a subject of such fame, a man whose writing audiences love to claim as part of their literary lives that this play needed to reflect reality and it does seems to deliver the real Oscar Wilde – as real as we will ever know him.
The play has a cast of three – a reason why you feel an intimacy with the production. Wilde is played by John Gorick who played his character with precision. From an arrogant, yet likable Wilde in his first scenes through to playing a rejected, displaced man awaiting his sentence in the dock.
Gorick is flanked superbly by two fantastic supporting actors. William Kempsell plays a total of 6 parts in the play and his delivery of Sir Edward Clarke’s (Wilde’s defence) summing up to the jury gave me false hope that maybe, just maybe Wilde would be found innocent after all – although I know the awful truth that is inevitable.
Rupert Mason had a gravity to his acting that proved versatile and commanding. Also playing 6 parts in the play, Mason shows his acting range well – his depiction of a witness ‘Fred Atkins’ was a highlight of the play and he proves more than a match for Wilde’s witticisms playing Edward Carson – The Marquess of Queensbury defence in the libel trial Oscar brings against him.
The play is directed by Peter Craze, who has sculpted the drama well, and written by John O’Connor and Merlin Holland (Oscar Wilde’s grandson). The task of condensing the trials into a play must have been a monumental job – it has paid off.
The set was simple, but even if Carson had rigged up the flashing red lights of Soho in the background it would have made little difference to me, my eyes never flitted from the faces of the actors.
In the audience you are drawn into the play as if you are watching the news unfolding live in a studio. You pre-empt the questions and hang on every word of the answers awaiting the witticisms you know will come. What I didn’t expect was the heartache I felt for Wilde. It is well documented that Wilde was found guilty of ‘Gross Indecency’ and sentenced to two years hard labour for the crime of homosexuality and it is easy to forget that only 47 years ago homosexuality was still a punishable crime in Britain.
The justice system is shown up for what it truly was in 1895 – prejudiced and divided and there is a true sadness to the case against Wilde. Not only does it clarify how Wilde’s demise transpires, it shows the injustice of 19th century British justice.
Overhearing some of the audience in the interval I was struck by a lady saying ‘the situation is just so sad’ and as I left one gentleman couldn’t stop saying ’excellent!’ It is a production that has the audience in mind at all times and because of that the audience respond. They baulked at the prosecutions summing up – leading the jury to not convict on just the evidence provided but also upon the prejudices of the 19th Century and I felt the audience around me fall for Wilde. As the West End beckons for this production, I feel so too should the rest of the world – it’s about time the truth was told.