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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