This April, theatre-goers will see Oscar Wilde's prison writings come to life with a production of 'De Profundis' ('From The Depths').
Directed by David Fenton and starring Brian Lucas, the play examines the life of Oscar Wilde, focusing on the persecution he faced for being gay and the deep suffering and transformation he underwent in prison. When asked what initially drew him to the production, Brian Lucas says, “David Fenton had been wanting to do an adaption of the piece for a long time. I've known him for years, he's directed me in a couple of other things before. He actually brought the idea to me and said, 'how would you feel about doing this?' And I hadn't ever really considered it before but I was really terrified and excited at the same time by the idea.”
The play will feature elements of multi-media production, bringing Oscar's experiences and words to life. “There are three main elements in the piece. There's my physicality as Oscar Wilde, there's a large amount of text that's spoken throughout, but there's also projection. The setting is the cell, two walls and a ceiling of the cell where Oscar Wilde was imprisoned. It's a very bleak place, but through the multi-media we managed to conjure up symbolic imagery, text and atmospheric decoration... The atmosphere of the cell is continually changing and it weaves around the words, and the words weave around it as well. It's going to be strongly visual as well as rich in terms of the text. The centre of the whole thing is the body, the physicality of this person from whom these words are pouring.”
Brian very much views Wilde realistically, acknowledging that while he was obviously a great man, he wasn't devoid of flaws either. “One of the things I love about playing Wilde or playing with his words and looking at his life is that he's not an entirely likeable character himself. He's incredibly intelligent but he's also willfully ignorant. He's very funny and insightful but he's also very vain... We certainly don't want to just be putting Oscar Wilde out there and saying, 'oh, poor man, complete martyr or complete saint', because he certainly wasn't. He inflicted a lot of damage on a lot of people around him, including his family and his friends. But that makes him all the more fascinating, that he's not perfect and never was but he still didn't deserve what happened to him.”
“You remember that they're people. They're not these symbols,” says Brian passionately. “That's one of the things that Wilde wrote a lot about. One of the reasons that he fell so hard is because he was held up as a symbolic figure of his age. He was lifted up higher than he should have been, so he fell much further. He was clear to acknowledge that, he had become this symbolic figure and acknowledging that that contributed to size of his scandal and the scale of his downfall.”
At the core of the writing is the very real story of a human dealing with incredibly difficult circumstances. “It's such a human piece, for someone who dealt so much with artifice and surfaces and as he said that he was tired of the articulate utterances of men and things, he's tired of being witty and saying clever things about people and about objects. There's a real person underneath all of that and I think that's what's going to come through in 'De Profundis'.”
A large part of the story revolves around Oscar's relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas. “I think it's just one of those cases of someone falling for the wrong guy. Lord Douglas was very much an opportunist, he was very keen to be associated with Oscar because of his reputation. He certainly enjoyed the high life and though he and his family were quite wealthy himself, he was able to maintain that lifestyle in his relationship. He's a pretty dislikable character all round really, very vain young man, although you can certainly see physically what the appeal was and also he was obviously quite charming.”
A recurring theme in Oscar's writings is the punitive nature of the justice system that he was being punished by. “In one of the most famous sections of 'De Profundis' it states: 'Every trial is a trial for one's life and every sentence is a sentence of death and three times have I been tried.' You could see that it was a spiteful system, not a just system. Even the process of coming out of prison involved being taken back through the different prisons and detention centres that he'd been held in, he couldn't just come straight out of Wandsworth Prison.
“It's a system that's not satisfied with punishing people. It wants to keep punishing them and keep hurting them. I think that has great lessons for us today and I think certainly we hope that things have changed to a degree but I think we do look upon prison as being not only about punishment but being about hurt, about being not just deprivation but actually physical and psychological damage and I think that's something we still have to change.”
For Brian, the persecution and decline of Wilde still remains as pertinent as it was over a century ago. “I think it's really important that we're reminded that the struggles are continuous. We need to know our history so we don't repeat it and to see how little things have changed in a hundred years. This kind of cult of celebrity and the pulling down of people, whether it's for their sexuality, no matter how much we openly and legally support it, it can still be used as a make or break for a reputation... We're an incredibly progressive society in so many ways but it's good to be reminded that it doesn't take much for people to turn on each other.”'Oscar Wilde's De Profundis' plays Brisbane Powerhouse, 23 April – 2 May.