Exactly 124 years ago, on 3rd April 1895, the hearing of a libel case opened at the Old Bailey. The prosecutor was the renowned playwright Oscar Wilde; the defendant was the Marquess of Queensberry who, concerned by his son’s close relationship with the writer, had accused him in a note of “posing as a somdomite”. Outraged, Wilde sued for defamation, but the move backfired spectacularly; faced with overwhelming evidence that he was, in fact, homosexual – at that time an illegal act – he was forced to drop the case, only to be arrested immediately and sentenced just a few weeks later to two years hard labour.
The Trials of Oscar Wilde, co-written by John O’Connor and Oscar Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland, is based on court transcripts from the two trials, and charts Wilde’s rapid downfall. Just days before the libel case began, The Importance of Being Earnest had opened at St James’s Theatre, and Wilde was complacent enough to believe that his success as a writer would make for an easy win. The production – also directed by John O’Connor, with Eva Savage – sets the drama not in a courtroom but on a stage, and in Act 1 Wilde takes to it like a true showman. But over the next hour, his relaxed confidence is chipped away piece by piece, and the man who appears at his own criminal trial in Act 2, though still possessing the same sharp wit, appears shaken and humbled by his sudden fall from grace.
This dramatic transformation is captured to perfection in a brilliant central performance from John Gorick, who leads the four-man cast with effortless style. Around him, his fellow cast members slip in and out of a variety of costumes to play multiple different characters, with impressive versatility and more than a little humour; Benjamin Darlington and Patrick Knox have particular fun as a short-sighted hotel chambermaid and an Italian masseuse respectively. The real highlight of the play, however, is the clashes between Gorick and Rupert Mason, who plays both the defence lawyer who meticulously unravels Wilde’s libel case and the prosecutor who sees him condemned to prison. Though of very different temperaments, the men are equally matched in their skill as orators, and in their hands an encounter that could on paper have become rather dry crackles with tension.
Though it references it several times, The Trials of Oscar Wilde is not The Importance of Being Earnest. For one thing, there are considerably fewer laughs to be found in this tragic true story of a great literary talent brought down by society’s intolerance and prejudice. It’s also considerably more demanding for the audience; the play puts us in the position of the jury in both trials (though unfortunately we get no say over the final decision), and as such it demands our constant attention – just as would be the case in a real court, we have to stay focused throughout so as not to miss any name, date or other important detail. None of which is to say that the play isn’t entertaining – there are certainly moments of light relief, and the staging of the courtroom scenes is very well done.
Most of us know something of how Oscar Wilde’s story ended, but perhaps not so many are aware that in effect he set in motion his own downfall. This play fills in the gaps in a way that’s both educational and dramatically satisfying. A fascinating true story, very skilfully told.