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- Title: De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail
- Adapted and directed by: Gregory Prest
- Music and lyrics: Mike Ross, Sarah Wilson
- Actors: Damien Atkins, Jonathan Corkal-Astorga, Colton Curtis
- Company: Soulpepper
- Venue: Young Centre for the Performing Arts
- City: Toronto
- Year: To Feb. 18
It will surely take multiple viewings to appreciate Gregory Prest’s bold and brilliant new work De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail.
Like the Irish playwright and poet at the centre of the play, and indeed like the letter for which it is named – written by Wilde while imprisoned for “gross indecency” – it is fragmented and full of fascinating contradictions.
But as long as you’re not expecting a conventional drawing room comedy of the kind Wilde himself made famous in plays such as An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, you should be fine. You should also not expect a musical, although there are about a half dozen songs in it.
The show begins with the appearance of Wilde’s friend Robbie Ross (Jonathan Corkal-Astorga), who introduces the play with proper gravity and reverence before Wilde (Damien Atkins) pops his head out from backstage to bicker with him and size up the audience at Soulpepper’s Michael Young Theatre.
“I want a different audience – an audience who’s read a goddamn book,” he tells Robbie. When his friend brings up the subject of relatability and context, Wilde snaps back, “Relatability is overrated – just don’t be dull.”
No fear of that. Here, in one clever little bit, is a clue about the kind of genre-shifting show we’re about to see – although Prest and his actors will travel to much darker and more profound places over the next 90 minutes.
Wilde addressed the original De Profundis to his English lover Lord Alfred Douglas, also known as Bosie (Colton Curtis). It was Douglas’s strained relationship with his father, the Marquess of Queensberry, that caused Wilde to end up in prison. (For the full, tragic story, see Moisés Kaufman’s excellent 1997 play Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.)
After serving hard labour for two years – which irrevocably affected his health – Wilde was finally granted the chance to write letters, one page a day, which had to be surrendered nightly to the warden.
He begins by recriminating Bosie for not writing to him. This leads to a recounting of their five-year relationship, during which Wilde got very little writing done and saw his bank account depleted by Bosie’s extravagant tastes. Broken physically and financially, his reputation in tatters and estranged from his children, he was at the lowest point of his life.
Eventually, after a month or two, his letters become more soul-searching and spiritual. This writing is far removed from the light, sparkling witticisms he’s known for.
De Profundis the play isn’t merely a recitation. Prest takes his cue from the thematic changes in the letters to create something that keeps shifting and transforming. Music director Mike Ross’s music and Sarah Wilson’s lyrics add to those mood shifts.
The first song, with Corkal-Astorga playing on the keyboard (he’s listed as the associate music director), nicely sets up Wilde’s dynamic with Bosie through a futuristic-sounding song about a king who adopts and raises a lion cub that eventually grows up and bears its claws, showing its true nature and destroying the royal.
Other songs draw on music hall ditties and even disco beats to contrast Wilde’s more modern dilemma with his more straight-laced times. The most devastating song of all is an Irish ballad in which Wilde quietly rails against the religious and social hypocrisy of his era, a number that speaks to any age.
Atkins, who’s played many proper Victorian gents in several seasons at the Shaw Festival, is devastating as Wilde. Whether he’s seething with rage, adoring his lover’s former beauty or ground down with despair, he is fully alive to every moment in Prest’s script and production. Musically, he gets to show off the range of his voice, from falsetto-like high notes to raucous rock growls. Midway, he even gets to channel the witty Wilde we all know and love in a scene that Prest stages as an audience-participation segment.
From his position at a keyboard at the side, Corkal-Astorga delivers fine support. Robbie Ross became Wilde’s literary executor and helped prepare De Profundis for publication after his friend’s death, and so the two – who were also former lovers – had a unique connection suggested in the actors’ frequent glances to each other. (Ross was Canadian, and surely deserves his own play one of these days.)
Curtis’s Bosie, meanwhile, flits in and out with stylishness and grace, posing languidly or erotically in the more objective moments, dancing across the stage (Indrit Kasapi is the movement director) or joining Wilde in a poignant duet in his more active appearances. A guttural sound he makes repeatedly early on doesn’t pay off, which is one of the only issues I have with the production. I’m also not sure Frank Donato’s projections are warranted.
Since Wilde was such an unapologetic aesthete, it’s fitting to end this review with a few words about the play’s more successful design elements. Lorenzo Savoini’s realistic prison cell (bucket, bench, bed, cement wall) is bordered by bright neon (he also designed the lights). And while the playing area originally consists of a claustrophobic square, as Wilde recounts his story it gradually widens to include more elements, ending in a visual display of pure, life-affirming bliss.
Ming Wong’s costumes also bridge several eras. Her smartest choice was to clad Wilde not in a standard prison uniform but in a rather elegant pair of white pajamas, decorated with a pattern that could be an upside-down fan – a reference, perhaps, to Lady Windermere’s famous accessory.
There’s likely no historical basis to this sartorial detail, but I’m sure Wilde himself would have approved.
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)