Theatre: Gross Indecency

Minetta Lane Theatre, New York City
Oscar Wilde died on 30 November 1900, aged 46. As the centenary of his death approaches, more and more biographies, more and more critical works, more and more plays are being produced. Incidentally, has anybody thought of reviving Vera, which, as far as I know, has not been performed since it failed in America in 1883?

A statue of Wilde is to be erected in the West End. Two plays about him, one of them by David Hare, will open shortly. The Stephen Fry film is on its way. Meanwhile, in New York there is Gross Indecency, one of the season's biggest successes, which chronicles Wilde's three trials in 1895. The author is Moises Kaufman, who also directs.

The script, sharp, intelligent and dramatic, draws on the original trial transcripts, as well as letters, newspapers, plays, novels, poetry, epigrams and biographies written by Wilde and his contemporaries, including Sir Edward Clarke, Frank Harris, Lord Alfred Douglas and George Bernard Shaw.

Wilde's troubles began when he arranged for a charge of criminal libel to be brought against the Marquess of Queensberry, who had accused Wilde of "posing as a somdomite". (Spelling was not Queensberry's forte.) But when Queensberry's counsel threatened to produce male prostitutes as witnesses to Wilde's actual "gross indecency", Wilde's counsel withdrew, Queensberry was acquitted and, in a dramatic reversal, a warrant was issued for Wilde's arrest. Although the authorities gave him the opportunity to escape, not issuing the warrant until the last train for Paris had left, Wilde chose to stay and face the charge. In the ensuing trial, the jury could not make up their minds, but a third trial ended in Wilde's conviction and a sentence of two years' hard labour.

Kaufman's production has a physical simplicity. A nine-man ensemble faces the audience in two rows. In the back row, either side of a lectern (which stands for the dock), sit the defence and prosecution. In the front row, at a long table, surrounded by books and papers, sit four narrators. They play a variety of roles - lawyers, journalists, auctioneers, Queen Victoria, etc.

For the most part, the cast speaks directly to the audience. In the second act, the narrators play working-class hustlers in Victorian underwear, a visual reminder that "the love that dare not speak its name" was not as Platonic as Wilde made it out to be.

Wilde was betrayed by his wit and arrogance, which led him to make a fatal slip. Asked by Sir Edward Clarke, counsel for the prosecution, whether he had ever kissed a certain young man, he glibly replied, "Oh, dear no. He was a peculiarly plain boy. He was, unfortunately, extremely ugly. I pitied him for it." Clarke was quick to move in for the kill. Trapped, unnerved, Wilde became inarticulate.

In the lead, Michael Emerson bears no physical resemblance to Wilde whatsoever. The characterisation is all in the language, attitude, vocal mannerisms and affectation. Emerson's Wilde - slim, sensitive, frail - is what Queensberry said Wilde was: a poser, and smug with it, behaving in court as if he were acting in one of his plays - and paying the price.

Let's hope, among all the Wilde-mania, that this production gets a London run.