The Wilder shores of love

In Extremis/De Profundis | National Theatre, London
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The Independent Culture

We are currently celebrating the centenary of Oscar Wilde's death. It always seems, to me, a rum business, celebrating the date of some good person's demise, but in the case of Wilde, the paradox is particularly painful. For this simple reason: that while dying on so rounded a figure as 1900 certainly gives a writer posthumous cachet, in any halfway decent world, Wilde would have survived well into the following century. England sent him to an early grave, dug in French soil. Or, rather, England and something in the golden meteor and doom-seeking missile of his own soul...

We are currently celebrating the centenary of Oscar Wilde's death. It always seems, to me, a rum business, celebrating the date of some good person's demise, but in the case of Wilde, the paradox is particularly painful. For this simple reason: that while dying on so rounded a figure as 1900 certainly gives a writer posthumous cachet, in any halfway decent world, Wilde would have survived well into the following century. England sent him to an early grave, dug in French soil. Or, rather, England and something in the golden meteor and doom-seeking missile of his own soul...

The National Theatre is now marking the event with a double bill. In the second half, Corin Redgrave, in convict's clothes, delivers an edited version of De Profundis, the letter Wilde wrote, while doing hard labour in prison, to his inamorato and nemesis, Lord Alfred Douglas. In my view, this long piece is the most generous-spirited rebuke ever written to a lover from someone who was at the same time also reproaching himself.

It is the more moving because you strongly suspect that Wilde will tumble into all the same weaknesses over this largely worthless young man the moment he claps eyes on him again.

Redgrave's wonderful performance is imbued with a sense of this. Reverting to the Irish accent of Wilde's youth, he pours out thought and feeling with just the right manic edge of someone who has spent too much time alone and has begun to talk to absent people as if they were really there.

While you are watching and listening to it, this is a performance that lies too deep for tears. It was the next day that it made me break down.

That section is preceded by a piece called In Extremis, specially commissioned from Neil Bartlett. Bartlett is the author of one of the most searching and courageous polemical studies of Wilde, Who Was That Man? and Wilde informs the sensibility of all his many and various theatre pieces. But from the over-neat title, In Extremis has the air of a playlet that has been written to order. It takes off from the fact that, a week before the court case that was to cost him almost everything, Wilde visited Mrs Robinson - a society palm-reader and charlatan.

In a sense, Wilde could be said to have read English society's palm and he certainly thought he knew himself like the back of his own hand. Bartlett's best strokes are where he brings out the physical and metaphoric qualities of that brief hand-holding session between Redgrave's Wilde and Sheila Hancock's sensitive-despite-herself Robinson. Looking back on the event, she recalls his hand as being "sensual and selfish".

The play kept making me think of Paul Simon's great line, "the open palm of desire wants everything, it wants everything", for it has the same understanding that in some, greediness and a complete generosity before life amount to the same thing. A less good feature is the predictability of the play's ironies: that Wilde's undoing might have been his making, at least from posterity's perspective. Personally, as with Christ, I would settle for his having lived longer, without the crucifixion at the final curtain.

To 16 Dec (020-7452 3000)

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