Monday 20 January 2020

Only agony, the ecstasy long betrayed

  • De Profundis, Watergate Theatre Kilkenny
  • Outlying Islands, Beckett Theatre TCD
Every anguished nuance comes to life in Stephen Rea's performance
Every anguished nuance comes to life in Stephen Rea's performance

Emer O'Kelly

Stephen Rea takes his audience into the soul of Oscar Wilde.

De Profundis is electrifying. Oscar Wilde's long diatribe of agony is intensely moving and sobering on the page; acted on the stage by a master of his craft, it drags you into that dank cheerless cell in Reading Gaol where Wilde was finally allowed pen and paper after almost two years of isolation alternating with back-breaking manual labour.

Except that Stephen Rea does not so much "act" on the stage of the Watergate Theatre in Kilkenny at the Arts Festival, as bury his soul in the depths of Wilde's suffering in a combination of numb despair and raw, searing agony.

Wilde wrote his long "letter" to Bosie, the petulant, selfish lover who turned his back on him, abandoning him to his disgrace, over several months. It is utterly indifferent to its own extremity of revelation: this is a man whose inner self lies naked and beaten in an exhaustion that sometimes seems to mirror, at others to defy, the somnolent post-coital exhaustion of passion.

And Rea combines it all. Hunched in half light, he is at once the universal prisoner and (devastatingly) the fallen angel of the almost contemptuously flamboyant green carnation.

Viewed objectively, Wilde was not the courageous flaneur of gay mythology: his courage deserted him when faced with disgrace, and he committed perjury in a pathetic attempt to avoid what he knew would be his "punishment". But many, maybe most men (or women), would have quailed in the face of society's overwhelming, hypocritical scapegoating.

What comes through the inevitable, anguished bitterness is the bewilderment of the betrayed lover. Alfred Douglas had battened shamelessly on to Oscar during their affair, used him mercilessly, indeed seemingly gloried in holding society's darling genius in thrall. But Oscar crawled back every time for more kicks. So Oscar, one would say, should not have been bewildered at the ultimate betrayal.

But he was, and remained so.

In De Profundis he writes with a subtext of the present: Bosie still holds his heart, and despite the silence, poor Oscar looks almost confidently to resuming their affair, as he looks to resuming his career.

Even from the depths of his "degradation", there is no shadow of what was to be the ugly, and perhaps mercifully short span of life left to him, indulging aimlessly in seedy sexual encounters, only to die forgotten and exiled. And, of course, without the balm of Bosie's presence.

Every anguished nuance comes tremblingly to life in Stephen Rea's performance: his voice is never raised; one might almost think his tone is a considered conversation with himself. Except that there is torment in every line. His is the voice of love betrayed throughout the ages, helpless, bewildered, allowing the bitterness while denying the hatred.

He plays within a score specially composed by Neil Martin, sensitively performed by the Irish Chamber Orchestra, and the production is certain to have an after-life, whether with the ICO or another ensemble. It is one of the very rare theatrical productions which can resonate for a very long time.


Outlying Islands seems to be full of noble ambition, both theatrically and for the future of humankind. And that's one hell of an undertaking. So it's not surprising that David Greig's 2002 play ends up falling apart at the seams without ever really having held together in the first place.

Greig seems to be trying to take on the huge conundrum of why the human animal on occasion prioritises other species over its own. Is it the ultimate fate of the world to implode on itself through its own higher aspirations? Or will the lowest motives always triumph?

It's 1939, and war is in the air. But are the preparations for war in the old "gentlemanly" style or is there need for something more sinister as an antidote to possible fascist annihilation?

Robert and John represent the two elements within their society. Highly trained young ornithologists and newly graduated from Cambridge, they are sent for a month to a remote island on the Scottish coast to survey the bird population. Robert believes in freedom for all, but this has led him always to take what he wants regardless of the fall-out.

John recognises limitations that will favour the common good. But they are faced with human greed in the person of the elderly lessee of the island who sees only the compensation to be had for the loosing of an anthrax attack for which their mission is the precursor. Even that does not ring the knell for their innocence: that comes in the primitive emotions of their host's primeval niece.

Salvation or apocalypse now? Greig seems unable to make up his mind, and therein lies the play's weakness.

Sugarless Theatre do a competent if slightly dull job in their production at the Beckett Theatre in Trinity, with Peter Corboy as John and Leonard Buckley as Robert displaying considerable finesse, although Maeve O'Mahony falls short of the sly abandon necessary for the unfettered Ellen. Karl O'Neill plays the sacrificial old man.

Colm McNally's artful set design looks rather better than it works, and the intelligent direction is by Marc Atkinson with music and sound by Lester St Louis, Lara Gallagher and Eoghan Quinn.

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