A portrait of writer and poet Oscar Wilde. Tim Byrne reviews
If David Hare’s play were written by Shakespeare it would have been titled The Tragedy of Oscar Wilde, and could have provided the acting world with a role to rival Cleopatra. His infinite variety would have been a source of wonder and affection; a Queer Lear, if you will. Needless to say, Hare is no Shakespeare. He is an undeniably good playwright, but the role of Oscar Wilde – that genius of self-creation – is simply beyond him.
Hare’s play takes two moments from the downfall of Wilde (Chris Baldock) and stretches them to breaking. The first act takes place on the day of his arrest, with his former lover Robert Ross (Oliver Coleman) pleading with him to take the train to exile, and his current lover Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas (Nigel Langley) pleading with him to stay. The second act shows Wilde and Bosie together in Naples after the imprisonment, wilting on the vine of commerce, cut off from friends and funds.
Proceedings open gratuitously with naked bodies writhing in a hotel room, followed by a fairly credible simulation of oral sex. This is not a frank display of the homosexuality that will hang like dirty laundry over the rest of the play, however. It’s an irrelevant dalliance between Arthur (Zak Zavod) and Phoebe (Lauren Murtagh), two employees of the hotel where Wilde stayed in the lead-up to his arrest and imprisonment.
Why Hare has chosen these side-line characters to open the play is beyond me, and a lot of stage business happens before anything approaching real drama begins. The cramped and slapdash set certainly doesn’t help, as more and more people herd into the substandard room, like a scene from Fawlty Towers. It’s only when Robbie and Bosie start sparring that the play sparks up, and eventually – thankfully – Oscar arrives.
The role of Oscar Wilde must be an intimidating one for any actor, and Mockingbird’s artistic director has himself taken up the challenge. He must be congratulated for his bravery and, on the whole, he pulls it off. Flashes of theatricality emerge now and then, but Baldock eschews the camp and the broad in favour of the plaintive and the intimate. This approach works well when Oscar is surrounded by people in act one, but proves problematic thereafter.
The problem is one of energy. When there is bustle and movement, Wilde’s stately calm feels powerful and wise. But stripped of his minions, seated in a chair like an invalid, the great man begins to feel like a pathetic bore. And for Wilde – the one man on the top of everyone’s fantasy guest list – to seem dull is the ultimate insult.
Hare’s true talent is with the rather stiff Englishmen, and Coleman makes the most of Robbie’s restrained adoration. The pain he feels as he goes back and forth between Wilde and the abandoned wife Constance is utterly palpable. Langley’s Bosie is also very good, a study of a man who just isn’t up to the task of being loved.
There is also a beautiful moment with the hotel staff, who recognise the giant of a man in their care, and reward him with the only thing they have to offer in his hour of desolation: their respect. It is moving, and skirts effortlessly with the sentimentality that Oscar purports to despise.
But the dramatic cards are ultimately left to fall rather feebly onto the floor in this rendering. The stately energy Baldock brings to the first half turns ponderous in the second, just as Hare’s arguments tend to the circular. Robbie’s entrance is welcome merely as respite, although short lived, because he too is made to repeat himself to no end. So rarely is Wilde’s own wit and levity allowed to surface, the whole play begins to look like a cruel inversion.
Much of the blame lies in the direction of Jason Cavanagh, who presides over an awkward and clunky production. The lighting (Rob Sowinski) is bizarre, especially in the second act, where a sickly orange washes all expression from the actors’ faces. The set is dreadful, although it has some credibility in the later stages as an abject dump. I almost expected to see actual rats.
Perhaps a greater genius has defeated the considerable talents of Mockingbird this time. If only Shakespeare were around to immortalise Oscar, we'd have no need of imitation.