The darker side of Wilde emerges in this theatrical take on his tortured prison letter
Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis – which is Latin for ‘From the Depths’ – was ostensibly a letter he wrote to his lover Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas while incarcerated for acts of ‘gross indecency’, although it is a work so aware of its own poetic intention, so pitched towards posterity, that it stands as the grand apologia of Wilde’s life. Along with the sublime Ballad of Reading Gaol, it marks the final stirrings of genius in the man, and has gone a long way in confirming him as the greatest martyr to homosexuality the modern world has ever known.
We can’t think of Wilde as the impossibly witty, aphoristic dandy of his Earnest days without embracing the dejected humiliation of his trial and confinement. Those frothy confections of his popular period are a perfect counterpoint to the unadorned misery of his prison output; it’s as if Wilde himself is telling us that we can’t have the sweet without the bitter. De Profundis is the bitter, although with this stage adaptation by director David Fenton and performer Brian Lucas, bitterness is played in a distinctly minor key. The overwhelming sense is of profound acceptance, of nobility in sufferance, an almost Christ-like tendency to self-sacrifice.
Fenton and Lucas are keenly aware of the man’s reputation – its self-aggrandising aspects as well as the sheer fact of it – and they play sophisticated, and not so sophisticated, games with the narcissism that underlines Wilde’s more extreme subjugations. Lucas stares out at the audience as it enters, impervious and completely naked, and while he carries a certain grandeur he also comes across as rather pervy and entitled. It’s hard to shake the idea that he might be rather enjoying these degradations. This becomes explicit when Wilde fellates a microphone and mops up a warden’s piss, but the play doesn’t need these silly indulgences; it’s perfectly capable of suggesting an urge to self-destruction with the honest delivery of Wilde’s words.
And they are beautiful words, merging high romanticism with a kind of religious fervour. His gift for the frivolous quip, of the kind that makes up the bulk of his comedies, here becomes “Where there is sorrow there is holy ground”. Lucas delivers the lines with steady conviction, utterly comfortable with the lyricism but also at home with the more confessional register. He dominates the small space physically too, his tall frame reaching up to the heavens or stooping to the cell floor. It’s not an imitative performance – there’s no arch posturing or rolling vowels, for example – and it’s all the stronger for it.
The simple set is augmented by some nifty video design by Ray Pittman, which transforms the stark prison cell into a verdant garden, a snowy landscape and a starry night sky. Less effective is the text that appears on the walls – it recalls Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby in the self-conscious way it tries to fetishise the words, a literal anxiety of influence. Jason Glenwright’s lighting is sensitive and supple, and David Megarrity’s sound is atmospheric.
Fenton and Lucas have worked on De Profundis for a long time – it was conceived in 2004, and had a season at Brisbane Powerhouse in 2015 – and the dedication and rigour are evident in every moment. Wilde’s text isn’t particularly theatrical, but the concept behind this adaptation is strong and the result is quietly effective. Intriguingly, the performance removes virtually any reference to Lord Alfred Douglas, leaving him as an unspoken irritant in the background. This strips some of the pathos of Wilde’s prison years, but it also sharpens the image of the man as martyr, our patron saint of homosexuality.