In 1897, Oscar Wilde wrote the letter we call De Profundis from his cell in Reading Gaol. His time there was part of a two-year sentence for “gross indecency” – a result of his ongoing weakness for the intended recipient, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas.
This theatricalised version takes excerpts from Wilde’s text. In the original, Wilde rebuked his disengaged lover for distress caused “…by what you have done and by what you have left undone…”. The tricky task of an adaptation can suffer the same charge.
It may be that this version of De Profundis will appeal more to those who haven’t read the source than to those who have. Certainly the instinct of the adaptors, director David Fenton and performer Brian Lucas, to distil is a good one. In the book form of De Profundis, Wilde courts tedium for the first 50 or so pages.
The repetition as he lays out the various (quite similar) ways in which he indulged the ungrateful Bosie, or restates how he’s lowered his genius by association with the much younger man of modest talent, becomes something of a grind.
Yet, the intact text allows the development of certain ideas. It gives us the background to appreciate the magnitude of Wilde’s progression from a wretched state in his first year of prison. It also has variety of form; long sentences of concentrated effort or description, balanced by more snarling, punchy ones. This De Profundis is unbalanced towards taking much of the former.
The passages, delivered well by Lucas, but so often in the style of a priest’s homily or the lesson of a Sunday School teacher, suffer by having less to contrast against than the original. This is unfortunate, as variety can contribute to making a one-person performance, say Guy Masterson’s rendition of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milkwood, constantly engaging and surprising, despite the apparent limitations of the form.
In De Profundis Wilde also wrote “The supreme vice is shallowness”. It is unfortunate that at times this production succumbs to this, mainly, but not exclusively, through the (mis)use of projected digital graphics. A distraction from the words one can tune out – does showing mock-ups of the covers of Wilde’s books, or a snippet of an uttered phrase add anything?
By mostly ignoring this overused device, only quite late did I see that projected text, just a word maybe, could signal a change from one topic to another. Had I been aware of this function earlier, perhaps I might not have found myself wondering at the apparent non sequiturs caused by leaps from some idea to one seemingly unrelated.
Other jarring matters could be smoothed. Surely the bibliophile Wilde, mourning the sale of his library to pay debts following bankruptcy, would have had new books on hand in his cell rather than tales of his own making? I wasn’t convinced that the intrusion of elements from our time into the production fitted in very well either. The sum of distractions blunted a performance I had quite looked forward to.
This De Profundis has interest as a window into a particular period of western history. Those conversant with only Wilde’s more widely performed works may appreciate the chance to hear the writer’s words when he himself is the subject.
Gasworks Arts Park, 21 Graham Street, Albert Park
Performance: Wednesday 24 January 2018 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 27 January 2018
Information and Bookings: www.gasworks.org.au
Image: Brian Lucas in De Profundis (supplied)
Review: Jason Whyte