It was a balmy evening on 27 September 1894 when two men appeared at the front door of the Albion Hotel in Brighton and asked if they could rent a room. One was a young newspaper seller from Worthing named Alfonso Conway. His companion was Oscar Wilde.
Wilde, who was at the height of his career and in the midst of writing The Importance of Being Earnest, was keen to keep their tryst a secret. What he couldn't have foreseen was the tenacity of the Marquis of Queensberry, the father of his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, who six months later would hire private detectives to track Conway down and, with the likely threat of a jail term, coerce him into revealing all.
Conway was never formally called as a witness to Wilde's trial the following year, which saw the writer and poet convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years in prison. Indeed, Conway's deposition, one of at least 20 made by Wilde's alleged lovers, was never made public, though circumstantial details of their night together in Brighton were used by the prosecutor during Wilde's cross-examination.
These fragments of evidence form the basis of the novelist, playwright and director Neil Bartlett's latest play Alfonso, which premieres in a one-off performance at the Brighton Festival later this month. "It's what I call an embroidery on a historical event," says Bartlett, whose lifelong interest in Wilde has already yielded a book, 1988's Who Was That Man?.
"He ate sandwiches with Wilde's wife, Constance," explains Bartlett. "This wasn't unusual for Oscar, and there's no reason to believe that Constance thought anything untoward was happening, or that this was one of Oscar's pick-ups. Alfonso would have been welcomed into the fold."
'For Alfonso: a Wilde Evening at the Royal', Theatre Royal, Brighton (01273 709709) 21 MayReuse content