Gross Indecency : The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde

  • Date:
    Tuesday, March 23, 1999

    The play is set in 1895 and concerns the three trials that were the cause of Oscar Wilde's downfall and which led to him being sentenced to 2 years hard labour in Reading Gaol for 'Gross Indecency' with young men. The whole event started with Wilde's prosecution of Lord Queensberry for libel, after Queensberry had accused him of being a "Somdomite" (sic). As a result of evidence from Queensberry's defence Wilde himself was charged by the Crown for gross indecency. At the time Oscar Wilde was at the peak of his success with two of his plays running in the West End "An Ideal Husband" and "The Importance of Being Earnest". Both were closed soon after the trials.

    The play uses original courtroom transcripts combined with writings by Wilde and his contemporaries to tell the story in more depth than had previously been done. Moises Kaufman also looks at the trials from a different angle, suggesting at times that the trials were not just about Wilde's moral conduct but also about the morality of his plays and books.

    I found the play a little disappointing for various reasons. Firstly I had mixed feelings about Michael Pennington's Oscar Wilde. At first I thought "No no, he is all-wrong, this just does not work." Michael certainly had the Oscar Wilde look, but he was too wooden and cold for my liking. I would have preferred a more warm, flamboyant performance. However, as the trials progress this feeling began to waver and Michael Pennington's performance started to grow on me. He was particularly convincing when the strain of events was beginning to effect Oscar Wilde. However, I still think the part could have been played better by someone else! My second disappointment was that the play did not really reveal anything new except to look at the trial from yet another angle. There was no real tension or gripping courtroom atmosphere and at times I was beginning to become a little bored!! Nevertheless there are many wonderful lines in the play, quotes from Wilde and others, which are a delight. There is also a sad and thought-provoking poem of Wilde's read out by the whole cast at the end of the play!

    Although Michael Pennington was miss-cast he still produces a professional and solid performance, but then this was expected because he is a very talented actor. He has recently been working for the Peter Hall Company with roles in "Filumena", "The Misanthrope", Waste", "The Seagull" and "The Provok'd Wife". He also co-founded the English Shakespeare Company with Michael Bogdanov in 1986. Nick Waring (who looks just like Darren Day!) puts in a competent performance as 'Lord Alfred Douglas'. There are also strong performances from Clive Francis and William Hoyland as lawyers and narrators and from James Aubrey as the horrible 'Queensberry'.

    Some of popular press were also luke-warm: NICHOLAS DE JONGH of THE EVENING STANDARD says "It's Clive Francis's dust-dry defence lawyer and the remarkable William Hoyland, rising to heights of vinegary contempt as Wilde's adversarial and judicial nemesis, who fire the stage with excitement." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE of THE TIMES says " I still left the theatre feeling that I had learnt little new. For all the play's strengths, I felt Oscared out." SHERIDAN MORLEY says, "If you already know the basics, you won't learn much more here. Even so,as Wilde nights go I've suffered worse." And PETER HEPPLE of THE STAGE echoes much the same saying, "The play offers no particularly new insights into the character of Wilde but proceeds swiftly and interestingly enough."

    Lasting two and half-hours it was a little dull at times, but nevertheless it did have its moments.

    "Gross Indecency" is an average play.

    (Darren Dalglish)

    This clever and moving play has just arrived at The Gielgud and deserves a long and successful run.

    To call it a courtroom drama, though it does re-enact the three trials faced by Oscar Wilde, would give the wrong impression. It suffers none of the lengthy, rambling monologues and boring legal jargon which seem to be the problem of so many plays of this type. It is fast paced, with lively direction and a chameleon-like cast who play a host of characters from judges to the local whores outside the courtroom. It moves quickly from Wilde's prosecution for libel of Lord Queensberry to his own subsequent prosecution by the Crown for gross indecency. Each trial building on the tension before until we reach the final scene of his conviction and inevitable fall into disgrace. The last word is left to Wilde himself with the entire cast reciting one of his most moving pieces of poetry, it wasn't only the actors who had to hold back the tears by that stage!

    The fact that the script comprises of actual trial reports from the case, unpublished legal papers, newspaper headlines and quotes and letters between Oscar Wilde and other leading characters from the trials, adds an authenticity to the play which makes it all the more effective. Despite facing the ordeal of the trials, Wilde never lost his dazzling humour and sharp wit and used both talents to their full in the courtroom to face his accusers. Michael Pennington in the role of Oscar Wilde, gives a lovely performance during this war of words and manages to show the human side of the genius as he challenges the hypocrisy of the Victorian age.

    It's almost 100 years since the death of Oscar Wilde and seeing this play and reflecting on the change of attitudes in such a relatively short time, makes the whole history of these events almost unthinkable in this modern age. It's wonderful to see a play that is so well written and directed that it is able to pay tribute to the life and work of Oscar Wilde even by showing the period of his greatest struggle. Congratulations to all concerned!

    (Donna Birkwood)

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