The European Arts Company presents The Trials of Oscar Wilde

Carleigh Nicholls reviews The Trials of Oscar Wilde, a play based on original court transcripts of the famous playwright’s notorious criminal trials.

“Everything I write is extraordinary. I do not pose as being ordinary,” the famous playwright and author Oscar Wilde jokingly claimed as he defended himself in court. Nor indeed were Wilde’s trials ordinary affairs. On May 25, 1895, Wilde was found guilty of gross indecency and sentenced to two years’ hard labour. How did the playwright at the height of his career come to such an extraordinary end? Touring throughout the U.K., the European Arts Company has brought these events to life in the courtroom drama The Trials of Oscar Wilde.  Based on original court transcripts, director and writer John O’Connor and Merlin Holland (Wilde’s own grandson) have painstakingly recreated Wilde’s trials for modern audiences.

The first act of the play follows Wilde’s libel case against the Marquess of Queensberry, the father of Wilde’s close companion Lord Alfred Douglas. Disapproving of their relationship, Queensberry leaves a card for Wilde accusing him of being a “sodomite” to which Wilde sues for libel. Unfortunately for him, this court case completely backfires. Following substantial evidence of Wilde’s alleged homosexual acts, the prosecutor quickly becomes the defender. Thus, the second act follows the criminal proceedings against Wilde leading to the inevitable tragic conclusion. 

The power of this play is in Wilde’s words. As such, designer Tom Paris has left the stage plain with a red ribbon curtain backdrop on which projections sometimes appear. However, the lack of decoration does not make the experience any less immersive. Indeed, the advocates directly address the audience during their opening and closing statements, making the audience feel like guilty members of the jury witnessing this awful trial. Perhaps as an attempt to add more drama, external scenes (such as an auction taking place or a scene from Wilde’s plays) are occasionally interspersed into the main scenes. However, these scenes often feel unnecessary for the play is strongest when it sticks with the courtroom transcripts.

John Gorick in The Trials of Oscar Wilde.

Comprising of a cast of four, John Gorick deftly portrays Wilde’s acerbic wit. Presenting a cool demeanour, Gorick shows a subtle transformation from the over-confident showman attempting to woo the court with his humour to a more quiet and restrained character repeatedly getting caught in his own words. Asked whether he ever kissed a certain boy, Wilde quickly responds “Oh, dear no. He was a peculiarly plain boy.” Gorick shows the subtle horror in his face as he realizes how this answer could be construed. He gets more defensive and nervous, while at the same time trying to keep his cool. The fact that these are Wilde’s own words makes it even more emotional to watch. 

Rupert Mason portrays the prosecutor acting against Wilde, and he is a good match for Gorick. Egging him on, twisting his words, and reading passages of literature out of context, Mason’s prosecutor catches every single one of Wilde’s slips. Patrick Knox and Benjamin Darlington round out the cast portraying the other lawyers and witnesses. Darlington especially highlights an uncomfortable moment in the trial, portraying the young Charlie Parker, one of Wilde’s alleged “rent boys.” Describing Wilde’s ‘wining-and-dining’ before taking him to the Savoy Hotel, the unfortunate power dynamics between the two men are front and centre. Indeed, the prosecutor repeatedly emphasizes the young ages and the low stations of the boys involved, reminding audiences that although Wilde was tragic, he was not necessarily a saint. 

The play comes to a chilling end as Wilde is found guilty. As the court adjourns, Wilde pathetically pleads: “And I? May I say nothing, my Lord?” Although he could say nothing then, O’Connor and Holland have ensured that Wilde has the final word. Audience members at the Greenwich Theatre left the auditorium haunted, with some asking each other as they exited whether he was guilty or not. However, that is not the point. As Wilde himself glibly points out in his first trial, “no work of art ever puts forward views,” rather people bring their own views. In recreating these trials, O’Connor and Holland have allowed audiences to take Wilde at his own words. 

4/5

The Trials of Oscar Wilde will be touring throughout the U.K. until June 1, 2019. For specific dates and venues, check online here: http://www.europeanarts.co.uk/next

Photograph credit: David Bartholemew.


Carleigh Nicholls is a PhD Candidate in History at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, but is currently based in London. She is a great appreciator of theatre, particularly plays with a historical nature, but enjoys all genres. Her general research interests include politics, religion, and the law in Stuart Britain, with a particular focus on Restoration Scotland.

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