Theatre: Wilde at heart

GROSS INDECENCY

GIELGUD THEATRE

LONDON

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 paper

Arts and Entertainment
Just folk: The Unthanks

music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project