Event review: Mrs Oscar Wilde at the Spread Eagle pub theatre

By - Friday 22nd September, 2017

Oscar Wilde chose his wife more wisely than he chose his boyfriend

Photo by the Spread Eagle pub theatre, used with permission.

Although it’s been done before, there’s still something shocking about reversing the lens of history. The perspective of those without power or fame can be radicalising: here’s a great man (whoever he is) through the eyes of someone who picked up his dirty socks. So – how great is he now?

The life of Constance Lloyd Wilde is almost completely unknown. In this one woman show at the Spread Eagle pub theatre, actor and writer Lexi Wolfe tells the story of Mrs Wilde, a writer herself, feminist, society figure and wife of the poet and playwright famous for An Ideal Husband and The Importance Of Being Earnest – and most famous of all for going to prison for being gay.

Her tale is a moving one. To grasp it fully is a stretch for a modern audience: the extent of the horror and disgrace of Wilde’s conviction for indecency (being outed, we would say, though it’s important not to see this in early twenty first century terms) is hard to imagine now. A sense of dread builds as the crisis approaches, and while we know what’s coming, Constance’s obliviousness is endearing. Carnations in his buttonhole make us smile knowingly, but to her he is simply ‘being Oscar’.

Wilde’s two-year prison sentence was the result not of homophobic prejudice alone, but of his own misjudgement. His affair with Alfred Douglas had been an open secret in society, but arrest and trial followed his attempt to sue Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury, for accusing him of it. His choice of Constance as a wife – witty, clever and genuinely devoted, to judge from the letters to her brother upon which the script is based – appears to have been a far wiser personal decision.

The slightly over-written script sometimes gives detail which we don’t quite need

Her intelligent charm, and her courage, too, in forming her own opinions before this was encouraged for women, create the real sadness that lies at the heart of the play, as a gifted woman is first unfulfilled despite her efforts, then tortured by uncontrollable events. Her marriage’s mismatched unhappiness mounts up slowly and both the Wildes must have suffered as their relationship loses momentum then founders for reasons they can’t quite name. But for Oscar, consolation is readily available. For Constance, Victorian wife and mother of two young boys, that isn’t the case.

All this is captured by Lexi Wolfe in a production which holds our interest despite rather static staging which leaves too little to look at: action and physical variety are a real test for a single performer. The slightly over-written script sometimes gives detail which we don’t quite need, perhaps out of understandable enthusiasm to be true to its fascinating source material. When moods are drawn out, the show seems one-paced and therefore feels a bit too long.

But a pie and a play make an excellent Saturday night. The Spread Eagle in Katharine Street serves decent pub food, and the varied and imaginative programme in the theatre upstairs is well worth keeping an eye on.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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