Cubist collage brings arresting drama to life

First Night Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde 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 over- ripe melon, or engaging Stephen Fry to create a definitive Oliver Cromwell.

Playing Wilde now at the Gielgud Theatre, Pennington does often give the impression that here is a man who would have been happier penning an improving 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 compelling and the Brechtian presentational style is so apt and penetrating that Gross Indecency: The Three 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 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 Marquess of Queensberry to the conviction and sentencing to two years' hard labour. But with an enormous skill for illuminating juxtapositions and clashes, Kaufman opens the proceedings with flashbacks, flashes forward and running commentaries. The event is like a cross between courtroom drama and a sort of Cubist collage or kinetic scrapbook.

Superbly played, the unedifying line-up of male prostitutes who are paid by the Crown to give evidence against Wilde (bribes ironically far more corrupting than any Oscar pressed on them) also double as jurymen, narrators, dignitaries such as Shaw and Frank Harris. The literary sources on which the play is based are brandished like trial exhibits. If these men occasionally remind you of the young co-presenters on Esther Rantzen's late and unlamented That's Life (you keep expecting one of them to whip out a "funny" phallic vegetable), their multiple tellingly discrepant functions also testify to the fact that, in Gross Indecency, Kaufman has devised a fractured, increasingly phantasmagoric form that manages to present Wilde in all his complex contradictoriness.

For example, this author is an ambiguous icon for the modern gay movement in that, when giving testimony, he flatly denied his homosexual activities. It's typical of Gross Indecency that it includes a spoof interview with a trendy academic expert who puts forward the notion that there may not have been a gay movement but for this trial, since it was the origin, for good and bad, of people defining themselves by their sexuality and it fixed in the public mind a limiting definition of the "homosexual" that Wilde would not necessarily have accepted.

The piece also movingly establishes that poor Oscar was used as a lightening conductor to deflect attention from a Liberal government rife with what one might term the lust that dared not speak its name. Strongly recommended.

Paul Taylor

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Nick Clegg on the campaign trail in Glasgow on Wednesday; he says education is his top priority
peopleNick Clegg remains optimistic despite dismal Lib Dem poll ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
News
people
News
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
people
Sport
Ross Barkley
footballPaul Scholes says it's time for the Everton playmaker to step up and seize the England No 10 shirt
News
'We will fix it': mice in the 1970s children’s programme Bagpuss
science
Life and Style
2 Karl Lagerfeld and Choupette
fashion
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?