Prisoner C33  (Review – Online)

Prisoner C33  (Review – Online)

The inimitable Oscar Wilde continues to exert fascination over the literary world through his plays, poetry, prose and his many aphorisms. Indeed, there always seems to be a handy quip which one can use to introduce a review of his work or any piece about him. “I like hearing myself talk. It is one of my greatest pleasures” is a poignantly relevant example in the case of Stuart Paterson’s double monologue piece which finds the writer doing little else, though I’m not sure that in this case that he finds much pleasure from doing so. The play is bookended by the sound of a man screaming in pain as they undergo the horrors of imprisonment in the Victorian era.

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For this is the Wilde incarcerated in Reading Gaol for gross indecency, treated brutally and suffering from the perforated eardrum which was to eventually hasten his departure from this world. He is in a wretched state, haunted by his earlier fame and success but now reduced to just a number and eking out an existence in a filthy, cold and miserable cell where the latrine bucket hasn’t been emptied for days and the sounds of human anguish further invade his already tortured hearing. He is also irredeemably bored with the whole business and with nobody else to talk to, it is small wonder that he conjures up a vision of his earlier self and engages in some impassioned dialogue on a wide range of subjects covering the arts, politics, education and society. He is condemnatory about most aspects of life and effectively punishes himself as much as the legal system sets out to do. And Paterson also ensures that there is the occasional nod towards modern life with lines such as ““We cannot continue to keep on living like this, governed by fools who think only of wealth and of war and the size of their estate.” Quite!

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Both Wildes are played by Toby Stephens, and he does so with consummate artistry. One is a dishevelled wreck dressed in grey prison fatigues and with an even greyer face. Care and anguish are etched on to his eroded features as he struggles to remember his former better life. The other is the stylishly knee breeched, red velvet smoking jacketed man about town with delicately painted face and a deliberately cultivated affected manner. It is this public facing artful construction that we are more used to encountering but Stephens cleverly shows how within each of the pair lies the seeds of the other and both are used to mask the true double nature of the writer who self destructively ensured that he suffered for his art.

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Trevor Nunn directs the piece as though it were a stage play – though it’s hard to see how it could be quite so successfully done in a theatre – while modern technology ensures that the joins are not visible even when “the pair” are sitting on the same bed. That aside, camera trickery is kept to a minimum ensuring that the sparse style echoes the setting. The cell itself looks horribly realistic, dirty and dank with the sound of dripping water and lit gloomily so as to cast deep shadows. Wilde’s audio problems are emphasised by a screeching noise in Jasmin Kent Rodgman’s haunting soundscape so that we share in his agony encapsulated in the repeated refrain, “If it were not for my ears”.

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This is an uneasy watch which despite some sprightly bon mots (it’s Oscar Wilde so how could they not be included?) emphasises the dark nature at the heart of mankind. It’s all a far cry from the light touch given to us in The Importance Of Being Earnest – which Stephen Fry has dubbed the “perfect play” – and is nearer in tone to the Gothic horrors of The Picture Of Dorian Grey. In The Ballad Of Reading Gaol, Wilde was to sum up his experience thus:

The vilest deeds like poison-weeds

Bloom well in prison-air;

It is only what is good in Man

That wanders and withers there:

Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate

And the warden is Despair.

Prisoner C33 is available on BBC iPlayer  – click here

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