The Trials of Oscar Wilde
By John O’Connor and Merlin Holland
A MAPPA MUNDI | THEATR MWLDAN CO-PRODUCTION
UK TOUR 28 April – 27 May 2017
“I wanted to eat the fruit of all the trees in the garden of the world, and that I was going out into the world with that passion in my soul. And so, indeed, I went out, and so I’ve lived.” Oscar Wilde
Cyflwynir trwy drefniant arbennig gyda / Presented by special arrangement with SAMUEL FRENCH, LTD
Thursday 14 February 1895 was the triumphant opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest and the zenith of Oscar Wilde’s career. Less than 100 days later he found himself a common prisoner and bankrupt, sentenced by the Crown to two years hard labour for homosexuality. But what happened during the trials and what did Wilde say? Was he harshly treated or the author of his own downfall? Using the actual 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 tragically reduced to a man of no importance.
Mappa Mundi give audiences a chance to see the real Oscar for the first time, fighting for his art as well as his life as we get a real sense of Oscar’s intellect at full stretch – his complexity, wit and deep humanity.
Co-written by John O’Connor and Merlin Holland; the grandson of Oscar Wilde.
Suitable for ages 14+
Nos Iau 14 Chwefror 1895 oedd noson agoriadol orfoleddus The Importance of Being Earnest ac uchafbwynt gyrfa Oscar Wilde. Llai na 100 diwrnod yn ddiweddarach roedd yn garcharwr ac yn fethdalwr cyffredin, wedi ei ddedfrydu gan y Goron i ddwy flynedd a hanner o lafur caled am fod yn hoyw. Ond beth a ddigwyddodd yn ystod y prawf a beth a ddywedodd Wilde? A gafodd ei drin yn llym neu a oedd yn gyfrifol am ei ddinistr ei hun? Gan ddefnyddio’r geiriau go iawn a lefarwyd yn y llys, gallwn deimlo beth yr oedd fel i fod yng nghwmni athrylith amherffaith – gan fod y gŵr hwn sy’n llai na pherffaith yn cael ei droi’n ddyn dibwys.
Mae Mappa Mundi yn rhoi cyfle i gynulleidfaoedd i weld yr Oscar go iawn am y tro cyntaf, yn brwydro dros ei gelf yn ogystal â’i fywyd wrth i ni gael blas go iawn o ddeallusrwydd Oscar ar ei orau – ei gymhlethdod, ffraethineb a’i ddynoliaeth ddwys.
Wedi ei gyd-ysgrifennu gan John O’Connor a Merlin Holland; ŵyr Oscar Wilde.
Yn addas i 14+
Fri 28 Gwener THEATR MWLDAN Cardigan
Sat 29 Sadwrn THEATR MWLDAN Cardigan
Weds 3 Mer ABERYSTWYTH ARTS CENTRE Aberystwyth
Fri 5 Gwener TALIESIN Swansea / Abertawe
Sadwrn 6 Sat TALIESIN Swansea / Abertawe
Tues 9 Maw THEATR BRYCHEINIOG Brecon / Aberhonddu
Weds 10 Mercher The Council Chamber, CITY HALL, Cardiff / Caerdydd
Thurs 11 Iau The Council Chamber, CITY HALL, Cardiff / Caerdydd
Fri 12 Gwener PONTIO Bangor
Tue 16 Maw TORCH THEATRE Milford Haven / Aberdaugleddau
Press Reviews / Adolygiadau’r Wasg
“A Class Act”
The Trials of Oscar Wilde
Mappa Mundi & Theatr Mwldan, reviewed by Adam Somerset at Aberystwyth Arts Centre, 4th May 2017
Richard Nichols’ production is a class act from a company that has earned its spurs over the years. Carl Davies’ courtroom set is all solid wood and brass over which nine light globes hang. The contesting lawyers- Keiron Self’s Sir Edward Clark and Robert Bowman’s Carson- pace a carpet of red. Peter Knight’s use of music is economically apt. Francois Pandolfo, in one of several roles, ascends a set of stairs to preside from on high in judgement. This is the twilight of the Victorian century in defence of its sense of propriety and social and moral order.
The two historic trials of Oscar Wilde inadvertently fit a classic dramatic schema. The personality too of Wilde follows a dramatic arc of fall through hubris. The second act comprises the prosecution against Wilde in which Francois Pandolfo plays a series of damning witnesses, male and female. The first act has the greater crackle of dialectic to it. Wilde is the prosecutor against the Marquis of Queensbury. Steven Elliott in the witness stand creates a Wilde who combines flamboyance of the age of aestheticism with intellectual firepower, sustained by conviction that celebrity makes him invulnerable. The script early on reveals the astonishing level of Wilde’s academic achievements in both Ireland and England.
The heart of the production is this dialectical encounter between artist and barrister in the libel trial. The lawyer strains to convert the figurative language of verse and prose to literal meaning. Wilde dances away from the interrogation with the assertion that art has no correspondence to the materials of life as it is lived out. He resists Carson’s push towards making plain his notion of adoration. He ripostes that the only true object of adoration is himself. He riddles his testimony with aphorism as if the jury is just one more besotted audience. “The truth is rarely pure and never simple”. It may be right as philosophy but it is anathema in a place of law.
The play touches on territory that is similar to Nina Raine in “Consent”, the latest production from Out of Joint. The aesthetic argument that Wilde puts forward is as potent in 2017 as in 1895. Works of art do not put forward views, he states. They do of course in terms of views that are literal, the images that ring, but not in the sense of views figuratively as opinion. Over the course of the trials Steven Elliot takes Wilde from brilliant aphoristic fláneur to a figure of stoic serenity. His last speech is to be treasured.
That Wilde is a key figure of modernity is revealed in his use of the word “self-realisation.” A later staple of Maslowian psychology it would have been not just conceptually alien to his attackers but also deeply threatening in its implication. Its invention as a concept was not far behind, F H Bradley in 1876 being its first recorded user.
Verbatim theatre is over-valued in the theatre of public subsidy. The notion that it has an automatic authenticity over the grind and craft of a dramatist at work is a fad. But funding bodies, gentle herbivores, are easily led. The peaks of the genre have been in judicial enquiry, “Deep Cut” here, “the Permanent Way” and Richard Norton-Taylor in London. “The Trials of Oscar Wilde” part-fits this tradition in a surprising way. Hand-written transcripts of the trial were given to co-author Mervyn Holland as late as 2000. The adaptation for dramatisation by Holland and collaborator John O’Connor is skilfully done. It opens with the playwright basking in the adulation of the public. Voice-overs by Lynne Seymour and Gwawr Loader juxtapose lines from the plays that correspond to the court action.
“The Trials of Oscar Wilde” is produced in association with Stonewall Cymru. In London “Angels in America” is being reprised, also in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the passing the Sexual Offences Act. In the media coverage the role of Wales has not been emphasised. But the bill, which received Royal Assent July 27th 1967, was introduced by Leo Abse, MP for Pontypool, at a time when Roy Jenkins was Home Secretary.
Mappa Mundi. “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.” The author? Oscar Wilde.
The Trials of Oscar Wilde (Pontio, Bangor)
Who would have thought that a spelling mistake could lead to the ignominious and very public downfall of one of the greatest playwrights in British literary history? On February 18th, 1895, the Marquess of Queensberry left a card at the reception of the Albemarle Club for the attention of playwright Oscar Wilde. It simply read: “For Oscar Wilde, posing Somdomite”. This card subsequently became Exhibit A in a libel case Wilde brought against Queensberry, but the truth was the Marquess knew exactly what he was doing in goading Wilde, who fell for his “booby trap”.
The trial exposed more about Wilde’s private life, proclivities and passions than he could ever have bargained for, and ultimately led to a counter-trial where the Crown prosecuted Wilde for gross indecency. The jury in this trial could not reach a verdict, but the retrial jury certainly did, and Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labour in prison. The sentence took its toll on Wilde both spiritually and physically, and three-and-a-half year later, he was dead, aged 46.
The Trials of Oscar Wilde gathers these three cases together into one riveting two-hour play, based upon the actual shorthand notes taken during the proceedings. Written by Merlin Holland (Wilde’s grandson) and John O’Connor, the play re-enacts some of the juiciest exchanges in each trial, and it’s fascinating to know that the words used are those actually spoken by Wilde in the courtrooms. Before the shorthand notes were unearthed in 2000, a playwright could only guess what was said, whereas now we can enjoy the tragic truth of what actually happened.
During Wilde vs Queensberry it is plain that the playwright was confident, perhaps even smug, about the trial’s outcome. But after a certain amount of verbal jousting between Oscar and defence counsel Edward Carson, it becomes clear that the man of letters has underestimated the tenacity and detail of Queensberry’s representative. After some time trying to tie Carson in knots, Wilde makes one statement which proves a fatal error. When asked if he had ever kissed a certain servant boy, Wilde replied: “Oh dear no, he was a peculiarly plain boy. Unfortunately ugly. I pitied him for it.” That was all Carson needed to begin pulling at the frayed edge of Wilde’s pompous defence, as Wilde inferred that if the servant boy hadn’t been “peculiarly plain”, he might have kissed him.
Steven Elliott has the unenviable task of embodying one of the greatest and most celebrated wits of modern times, and does a great job of getting across Wilde’s hubris. He may not have the magnetic presence the man himself undoubtedly boasted, but Elliott gives Wilde great dignity and poise. During Act 2’s Regina vs Wilde, there is a moment when the writer is asked to define “the love that dare not speak its name”. Wilde’s words were beautiful and poetic, and identified the misinterpretation of homosexuality that made him a criminal in his age: “It is in this century misunderstood… It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it… The world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.” Elliott’s eyes well with sorrow during his delivery of this speech, bringing home the tragedy of Wilde’s predicament all the harder. It makes you want to reach back in time and rescue him.
Keiron Self gives solid support as Wilde’s lawyer, while Robert Bowman has the job of depicting three men who are essentially the “bad guys” in Wilde’s trials – Queensberry, Carson, and latterly the Crown’s prosecuting lawyer Charles Gill. Bowman manages to make each man as intelligent as he is hateful without resorting to boo-hiss villainy.
Holland and O’Connor have woven a mesmerising play out of their source materials, depicting the downfall of a great man both truthfully and entertainingly. The random peppering of passages from The Importance of Being Earnest seems unnecessary, and sometimes Peter Knight’s score comes in and out a little abruptly, but overall the jewel at the heart of the production is history itself. It’s like standing in the courtroom witnessing the trials first-hand, and is as close to time travel as we’re ever likely to get.
Whether Wilde was the victim of his own hubris and pride, or whether Queensberry was the architect of his calamitous fall from grace, is up for interpretation, but what this play proves is that Oscar Wilde certainly had a strong hand to play in what became of him. If only he’d ignored that spelling mistake…
Reviewed at Pontio, Bangor on May 12th, 2017.
Not even choice aphorism could save Oscar Wilde from the rigour of the law and the prejudice of society. First and ill-advisedly, he prosecuted the Marquis of Queensbury for criminal libel and dropped the case; then the Crown prosecuted him for gross indecency, a jury found him guilty after two trials, the first aborted, and he was sentenced to two years’ hard labour. It was a tragedy, as the ironic Wilde might himself have commented. The court transcripts show how in the first hearing, Wilde milks the scenario as if borne aloft on the popularity set up by his stage successes, but in the trials he’s under the cosh; the maxims come less easily and he struggles to win approval. He would have liked the court to believe that in his love of young men, pre-eminently Lord Alfred Douglas, he was simply behaving like Shakespeare and Michelangelo. That was Oscar’s problem: in his Pateresque, green-carnation world, everything was just so, and ‘immoral thought’ was a contradiction in terms; in the artless one of late Victorian society, it was morally strict and punitive.
Those transcripts turned up in 2000 after being unaccountably lost. Most newspapers of the time reported cases verbatim in sometimes lurid detail, so a play of the sort written from the re-discovered court records by John O’Connor and Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland could have been conceived in their pages. To be honest, The Trials Of Oscar Wilde is more documentary than drama, despite its more complete and voluminous source material, especially by the standards of modern courtroom theatricals, which at worst are the epitome of ‘telling not showing’. Like them, it resorts here and there to enacted flashback, and in Mappa Mundi’s co-production with Theatr Mwldan it involves the onstage cast of four in doubling that begins to look like the consequence of forced economy. The almost immediate transformation, for instance, of Robert Bowman’s Queensbury into the barrister Edward Carson QC, and François Pandolfo’s assumption of no fewer than seven roles, including that of the trial judge, begins to resemble a device intended to draw attention to its dexterity. But the authors themselves suggest that the play might be performed with a minimum of three or a maximum of eighteen actors, or anything in between. That said, the casting of Keiron Self as both Wilde’s counsel Edward Clarke QC, and the auctioneer selling off Wilde’s effects is unnecessary: the brief downstage bidding could have been cut without loss, or added to the stint of voiceovers Lynne Seymour and Gwawr Loader, here consigned to the ether in speaking extracts from The Importance of Being Earnest. That the changes soon become an accepted part of Richard Nichols’s direction says a lot for its unimpeded flow and inevitability.
The coup de théatre is the centre-stage depiction of Wilde himself as a character in a play rather than the inspired creator of characters in plays, a role reversal almost guaranteed to make him vulnerable. In Steven Elliott he is almost total simulacrum, from the opening downstage walk-on, in which he’s being cascaded with plaudits, to the final black-out, which finds him alone, vilified, sorrowful, defeated and, to his own satisfaction at least, misunderstood. It might seem easy enough for an actor to play someone who’s become almost a caricature of repartee, but Elliott’s combination of the aloof and the apprehensive, the droll and the sincere, is masterly. The climax of the play, such as it is, lies at the point where under questioning by barrister Charles Gill (Bowman again), Wilde admits that he didn’t kiss a ‘boy’ whose company he was keeping because the boy was ugly, a statement that makes conditional Wilde’s rarefied, almost Platonic, love of young men, the love that proverbially dare not speak its name.
The play is an attempt to show how literary genius was brought down by an intolerant middle class, one reason why this production is given with the support of Stonewall Cymru, the organisation promoting LGBT issues. Yet it’s more complex than that. Wilde thought his talent to amuse could be transferred with ease to the courtroom but the law, such as it was, proved impenetrable, as it always must, until altered. It is to Elliott’s credit that such complexity is not glossed over. Even allowing for Queensbury’s bluster, Elliott’s performance seems to suggest, and quite rightly, that Wilde was no better than he ought to be, particularly in gifting with silver cigarette cases and champagne dinners a series of young men who certainly were. That they were also of the lower orders and procured for his delectation, as Wilde himself might have put it, suggests not so much that they were being manipulated but that their love was incapable of, or not intended for, reciprocation. In such circumstances, elevated love becomes unadorned lust, and might still be referred to as ‘seedy’. The point, though, is that what Wilde did is no longer illegal. For him, having been found guilty of gross indecency in an atmosphere of cant and hypocrisy, it meant hour after hour walking the jail’s treadmill and picking oakum – not the activities consistent with one who believed in the supremacy of art over morality.
Nichols and his team – MD Peter Knight, designer Carl Davies, and lighting designer Ceri James – each fulfils his tasks with just sufficient input to keep minds focused on what in life was a headlong fall. This applies with interest to Pandolfo’s glittering queue of ne’er-do-wells, which illustrates the machinations of the case against Wilde, not least the dubious element of conspiracy. The echoes we hear of an audience reacting with enthusiasm to a Wilde play were echoes in reality: having served his sentence, the author fled to Paris, where he later died a destitute; but not before leaving us The Ballad of Reading Jail. Steven Elliott’s flamboyant but unguarded Wilde in a production that sticks with the heart of the matter does not appear to be a man who wanted to sign off with a testimony to degradation.
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 skillfully 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.
Creative Team / Y Tim Creadigol
Producer/ Lighting Designer
John O’Connor and Merlin Holland