Wilde Without the Boy/The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Rose Playhouse


Near the end of his two-year imprisonment for gross indecency, Oscar Wilde was a man broken from hard labour, isolation and social disgrace. Until a sympathetic warden at Reading Gaol allowed him restricted writing privileges, he hadn’t been able to write at all. Provided with a single sheet of paper that would be collected and replaced when that one was filled, Wilde penned an 80-page letter of 50,000 words to the selfish lover who was his downfall, Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas. Heavily edited and published posthumously by Wilde’s friend and former lover Robbie Ross, the chatty letter was titled “De Profundis”. After Wilde’s release, he wrote poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” whilst exiled in Paris; this work details the execution of a fellow inmate.

In Wilde Without the Boy/The Ballad of Reading Gaol, actor Gerard Logan and director/writer Gareth Armstrong team up to create a staged version of these two narratives as a one-man show in two acts. Dramatic in structure and reasonably well performed, this is a text-heavy piece that suits the intimate Rose Playhouse. However, the consistent, even tone and pace that Logan employs has a lulling effect and the verbosity overwhelms with details. There is little to watch; though Wilde Without the Boy gives insight into Wilde’s state of mind at this challenging point in his life, it would make more sense as an audio recording and I cannot discern why it was put on the stage. The Ballad of Reading Gaol is performed with more vocal and physical variation so even though it is the shorter part of the event, it is the more compelling piece.

The set is simple: a bare table and two chairs for the first act, with a stack of documents that are occasionally referenced as letters. The red rope lighting that outlines the Rose’s archaeological remains casts a faint red glow on the walls reminiscent of the passion and anger that constantly burns in Wilde’s heart. Whether or not this was intentional, it effectively contributes to the heavy mood of both pieces. In the second piece, the table is covered with summer linen and a sole green carnation rests there. It is another powerful symbol of Wilde’s homosexuality that is repeatedly denied in Wilde Without the Boy. This show completely ignores the vast space beyond the stage, a decision that suits the script, but it’s still a shame to neglect such a unique feature. The musical score, intermittent in Wilde Without the Boy but a constant presence in The Ballad of Reading Gaol, is latterly a character in itself and Logan’s delivery is impeccably timed to its rise and fall. No programme was supplied, but whoever designed or composed this score deserves acknowledgement.

Though both are interesting pieces of text in that they aren’t normally performed or read by anyone other that Wilde enthusiasts or students, their theatrical potential is limited. Even with Armstrong’s adaptation and edit of the letter, as a one-person show it’s still more of a recitation with a thin story arc detailing Wilde’s views of Bosie and his experiences in prison. Logan has some lovely emotional moments, but it’s not enough to keep the mind from drifting. The Ballad of Reading Gaol has an actual storyline, which is an immense boost to Logan’s performance. He has a compelling stage present and vocal agility, but Wilde Without the Boy is not the best showcase of his abilities, the Rose as a venue or theatre itself.

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The Picture of Dorian Gray, Greenwich Theatre

Merlin Holland is the ondorian-gray-700x455ly grandchild of Oscar Wilde. Determined to carry on Wilde’s legacy through research and writing, he adapted a new version of Wilde’s famous and infamous novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Touring since April as European Arts Company’s current production, it stops off at Greenwich Theatre for a few days before continuing its perky jaunt around the country.

And perky it is. With only a cast of four, this new adaptation is a largely faithful interpretation of the original story. There is a strong emphasis on artist Basil Hallward’s obsession with young Dorian, capturing the agony of Wilde’s creative and frustratingly closeted life. Played by Rupert Mason, he effectively parallels Wilde’s torment and the use of art as an outlet for homosexual expression, endowing his performance with pathos and depth. Guy Warren-Thomas is the androgynous, camp Dorian who begins as Wilde’s bright-eyed young thing making a vain, innocent wish but who slips into a life of debauchery after discovering his unintended immortality. Warren-Thomas manages to evoke some empathy in his later attempts to be good, but his corruption is a delicious downfall to witness. Gwynfor Jones and Helen Keeley complete the cast, with Lord Henry Wotton and Sybil Vane as their best roles. Warren-Thomas was the only actor to not multirole, but the others did so with great vocal and physical distinction. Cross-gendered performances provide some levity to the dark tale, as does energy and complete commitment to detailed characters.

Though the performances were excellent across the boards, there were some structural choices that did not effectively translate from page to stage. The first act was largely exposition, with Dorian only making the conscious choice to live for pleasure right before the interval. As consequence, the second half felt rushed and the effect of time passing was underplayed, though signified by grey hair in Lord Wotton and Hallward. There was also a jarringly out-of-place dream sequence that Dorian has upon receipt of a mysterious book from Wotton. Stylized and physical with coloured lights and smoke, it was unnecessary and the performers appeared uncomfortable and self-conscious.

The set provided simple but versatile atmosphere. The eponymous portrait was an empty frame that Dorian would grotesquely inhabit from time to time though often left empty and darkly lit. This is a device seen before, but an effective one as it fosters audience imagination. The costumes were sumptuous and indulgent, like Wilde himself and the characters he wrote.

This is a truly lovely production. Little is particularly inventive, but it is a classic story executed very well. The performances are certainly the highlight, as is the fact that Wilde’s grandson aided in the creation of the production. The flaws can certainly be overlooked in favour of focusing on the cast and their chemistry. It continues to tour for most of June, ending with a week at St. James Studio in London.

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