Oscar Wilde wrote De Profundis while serving in Reading Gaol for gross indecency. He was not allowed to write fiction and so he chose to write a long letter to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, known as Bosie. The letter was not sent nor was it published during Wilde’s lifetime and it was the end of Wilde’s writing career and life as he knew it, for he never really recovered to his prior self beyond imprisonment. After his ordeal he went to Paris to live and it was there that he spent his final days.
The letter is a tirade – a personal and first hand account about how Wilde came to be in prison and why, but also berating Bosie for his treatment and neglect of Wilde while in prison. The letter also contains a strong theme of yearning by Wilde to love and be loved by Bosie. Given the difficult circumstances that Wilde experienced in prison, the text (in this version adapted by Frank McGuinness) is remarkable in its clarity and eloquence and became known as De Profundis.
Many people have heard of this text, some choosing to read it, however, it’s length often gets the better of the reader and a rare opportunity to see this work brought to life in a performance is an effective way to hear Wilde’s work. However, when the actor bringing Wilde and his erudite and fervent words to life is Simon Callow, then this becomes a visceral performance with a full range of emotion, point of view and empathy.
Set on the very large space of the formal looking Music Hall at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, the three sides of the stage are covered in black, and one solitary chair is placed down stage centre. Callow arrives in the dark, sits on the chair – and a large lamp slowly rises in front of Callow, it is lit and the darkness gives way to show Callow, as Wilde. It is a fascinating and disarming start to the performance because of the tight focus of this lamp, now suspended high above the chair, giving the air of cold interrogation. The large expanse of nothingness and dark shadows evoke a lonely high ceilinged empty space in a prison or institution around 1895 when Wilde served his two year sentence.
Callow’s first words to Bosie proclaim that he has spent two years in prison “with no word from you”. The text is poignant when Wilde continues chastising Bosie but at the same time he blames himself for his dire situation. Wilde is clearly frustrated at what has become of him – but he still wants to appreciate art and to impress on Bosie the value of art.
Callow’s muscular words and resonant voice pour out with expert timing, changes of pace and emphasis. This is an excellent performance with fine acting. Callow finds nuances, vibrance from within his soul and so much more in this piece. Wilde’s words flow with Callow’s desperation for the relationship that once was and recalls it out loud. At times there is a matter of fact tone, then fragile, passionate or intense range of emotion. Sometimes Callow is confiding to the audience or witty as he recounts having lunch as his favourite restaurants. Callow’s gestures and the way he tilts his head, changes his posture or uses his eyes are refined and deepen the character. He stands several times, behind his chair or a very few steps away from it, while brief moody musical phrases play, these moments add shape and texture to the eighty minute performance and we would possibly enjoy more use of the space and visuals.
Callow’s Wilde is driven by love, very human and full of disappointment. Particularly sensitive moments are when Callow speaks of Wilde’s wife and the difficulties she has had while he is in prison. When speaking as the plaintiff the language is beautiful with rich imagery. Callow’s sorrow is deep and believable. This is a vibrant exhilarating performance of the roller coaster of Wilde’s memories.
Originally published in www.FringeReview.co.uk