TO CAST Michael Pennington as Oscar Wilde would, on the grim face of it, seem about as sensible as hiring a cactus to pose as an overripe melon or engaging Stephen Fry to create a definitive Oliver Cromwell. Playing Wilde now at the Gielgud Theatre, Pennington does, indeed, often give the impression that here is a man who would have been happier penning and improving a Temperance tract than in composing The Picture of Dorian Gray.
What is heartening is how little this matters, for the arrangement of the material is so intelligent and compelling, and the Brechtian presentational style adopted is so apt and penetrating, that Gross Indecency: The Trials of Oscar Wilde triumphantly rises above the rather empty exhibition of acting skill at its centre.
A big hit in New York, this play by Moises Kaufman now arrives in London in a fluent, incisive production by its author. The present tense of this arresting drama may take a chronological journey through Wilde's successive courtroom ordeals from the disastrously rebounding libel suit against the Lord Queensberry to the final conviction. The excellence of the piece, though, lies in the way Kaufman opens it up with flashbacks and flashes- forward that produce telling juxtapositions and discordancies, and with running cultural commentaries from then and now. The event is like a cross between courtroom drama and a fascinating kinetic mosaic produced by some cultural studies department. Fractured and increasingly phantasmagoric,with the cast transformed into our contemporaries, the play has found the perfect form for encompassing Wilde in all his complex contradictoriness and tantalising capacity to anticipate modern preoccupations.
He is, for example, an ambiguous icon for the modern gay movement in that, at his trial, he flatly denied his homosexual activities. It's typical of Gross Indecency that it addresses this issue by including a spoof interview with a trendy academic who floats the interesting notion that ironically, but for this trial, there might not be a modern gay movement since it was the original, for good and bad, of people being defined and defining themselves by their sexuality and it fixed in the public mind a limiting definition of what a homosexual is. It's possible that, with his love of perverse, pointed paradox, Wilde would have thought the phrase "gay liberation" a contradiction in terms. It's the strength of Gross Indecency that it airs these nebulous problems of identity at the same time as pinning down the disgusting politics behind Wilde's suffering. The play movingly shows how he was used as a lightning conductor to deflect attention from a Liberal Government itself rife with what, in their cases, one might call the lust that dared not speak its name.
Superbly played, the unedifying line-up of male prostitutes who were paid by the Crown to give evidence against Wilde (bribes ironically more corrupting than any Oscar pressed on them) also double as jurymen, narrators, female whores and dignitaries such as George Bernard Shaw and Frank Harris. Occasionally, they remind you of Esther Rantzen's young male co-presenters on the late, unlamented That's Life. In fact, all this play lacks is a "funny" phallic vegetable.
Booking: 0171-494 5065. A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paperReuse content