Writer: Neil Bartlett
Director: Caroline Devlin
Reviewer: Lizzie Kirkwood
On March 24 1895, Oscar Wilde visited the supposedly celebrated palm-reader Mrs Robinson. In February of the same year, Wilde took the Marquess of Queensbury to trial for libel, having publicly accused him of sodomy. As details of Wilde’s private life began to emerge in the press, the evidence against him stacked up, and the initial case led to his bankruptcy, imprisonment and eventual death five years later.
Bartlett’s hour-long play sees Wilde and Mrs Robinson describe the encounter from beyond the grave, intercut with snippets from the conversation as they remember it happened. The characters confess their various insincerities through asides to the audience; Mrs Robinson [Kate Copeland, alternating with Fiz Marcus] reveals the devices she uses to earn her clients’ trust, and Wilde [Nigel Fairs, alternating with Charlie Buckland] demonstrates a yearning for reassurance. This is the central conceit of the play; that for all Wilde’s witticisms, flair and tenacity, he was actually a vulnerable man, in desperate need of answers and encouragement.
Copeland’s Mrs Robinson is curt and composed, but the characterisation lacks the depth to be suitably engaging during several detailed speeches on the science of palmistry. Fairs’ Wilde explains to the audience how he lives his public life with a guard up at all times, firing out sparkling idioms with not a glimmer of private anguish. Unfortunately his interactions with Mrs Robinson entirely contradict this, as his sometimes unclear delivery and expressions of deep consternation tell a different story.
Neil Bartlett’s unwaveringly fluent script poses a question to which there is no answer; what really happened that afternoon? He hypothesises that perhaps Wilde was concerned about the accusations and preoccupied with the disparity between his public persona and his personal life. This idea, unfortunately, is too beyond doubt and not probing enough to carry a whole act, especially as it is not expanded on or investigated. One might think that Bartlett’s own voice can be heard to repeatedly confess throughout the play that he doesn’t actually know what happened and that no one ever will. Perhaps if this was less of a concern of the play, the freedom to construct a gripping fiction would have been afforded.