On 14th February 1895, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest opened to triumphant success at St James’ Theatre in London. Within 100 days, Wilde found himself bankrupted, disgraced and sentenced to two years imprisonment for “committing acts of gross indecency with a male“. He suffered a tragic fall from being a successful playwright to an incarcerated criminal, simply because he was gay. After serving his sentence, Wilde spent the last three years of his life in impoverished exile, dying in 1900, aged just 46.
Written by John O’Connor and Wilde’s grandson, Merlin Holland, The Trials of Oscar Wilde dramatises actual court proceedings leading to Wilde’s conviction. Using his own words where possible, this play provides a unique insight into the mind and lifestyle of one of a literary genius.
“All trials are trials for one’s life. Just as sentences are all sentences of death”.
As with any court room drama that is heavily dialogue based, without much physical urgency, this play has the risk of being monotonous and repetitive. However, The Trials of Oscar Wilde never becomes tedious. In fact, it instantly surprises, as the play’s first court case, which dominates act one, shows Oscar Wilde actually prosecuting Lord Queensberry for libel. This is a trial that is often overlooked, but its importance is indisputable.
Queensberry is the disgruntled father of Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, and leaves a calling card at Oscar Wilde’s gentleman’s club; “For Oscar Wilde, posing sodomite“. Wilde retaliates by accusing Queensberry of slander and libel. However, it is this prosecution that proves Wilde’s downfall. The extensive evidence, given to support Queensberry’s claims, result in Wilde being cast in a negative light. Suspicions are roused regarding his relationship with men. His own works are even used as evidence against him, including the “sodomitical novel“, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
“It is quite true that I worshipped you with far more romance offeeling than a man usually gives to a friend” – Basil Hallward, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Against this onslaught of interrogation, Wilde remains defiantly defensive, responding to questions with his trademark wit and charisma. John Gorick gives a perfectly poised performance as Wilde. Seductively charming, Gorick’s Wilde cuts a refined figure, reclining with his legs crossed or standing, left hand on hip. His intricate mannerisms are matched by an articulate, alluring voice, brilliantly capturing the eloquence of the playwright. Amidst this intense courtroom drama, Gorick’s sardonic Wilde is entirely compelling.
When the mood turns more sullen in act two, as Wilde is forced to defend his excessive lifestyle, Gorick also manages to portray a subtle vulnerability that renders his character subdued. The heartache of seeing former lovers giving evidence against him is reflected by Gorick physically recoiling, evading eye contact. Standing defiantly, Wilde’s composure falters as his voice cracks and tears well in his eyes when he realises the gravity of his sentence.
Gorick’s beautifully nuanced performance in the closing scene is utterly tragic. The final image of the play is deeply poignant, showing a defeated Wilde, alone in his prison cell. It is devastating to see how a literary genius is reduced to a broken man, criminalised and incarcerated because he is gay.
“I went in to fight for my art, but may end up fighting for my life”.
Wilde’s downfall is also beautifully reflected in Anett Black‘s inspired costume design. Oscar Wilde’s waistcoat in the first act is an elegant maroon, gilded with exquisite gold embroidery. A white chrysanthemum in his lapel, Wilde extravagantly displays his opulence.
However, in the second half, Black’s costumes turn decidedly sombre, as rich reds are replaced by black. Wearing a black suit and tailcoat, with a red rose in his lapel, Wilde appears that he is attending a funeral, not a court case. This marked costume change adds an ominous mood to the trial, that is reflected in Gorick’s performance.
The Trials of Oscar Wilde is a compelling court drama that is both captivating and heart-breaking. A magnificent performance from John Gorick captures how tragic it is that one of Britain’s best loved playwrights was reduced to an impoverished prisoner for being homosexual. Thankfully, the laws changed in this country. However, this play provides a poignant reminder that LGBTQ+ people across the world are still being persecuted.