What is freedom? Since COVID-19 hit back in March and the majority of us have been in intermittent stages of lockdown, the idea of being ‘free’ has become incredibly ambiguous. We’re not trapped in our homes, nor are we entirely free to leave them; we straddle the line of being free and not. Indeed, this is the very same situation that Oscar Wilde finds himself in Gareth Armstrong’s new biographical play, Wilde Without the Boy. Anchored by a towering central performance by Gerard Logan, the play peeks into the mind of one of theatre’s most celebrated, and most persecuted, writers and questions how much any of us can really be ‘free’.
Set days before the end of his prison sentence for ‘gross indecency’ and adapted from his famous treatise, De Profundis, Wilde Without the Boy finds Wilde at something of a crossroads. Ostensibly, he’s about to be literally free, no longer locked away in prison and able again to rejoin the world. But, as he reflects on a letter sent to him by his ‘Bosie’ (Lord Alfred Douglas), he discovers his fetters take on new forms: the shame of his sentence, the trauma of his punishment, the economic weight of his judicial loss. With these chains wrapped around him, will he ever be free?
What is immediately most striking is that this is a tired Oscar Wilde, not the witty raconteur that audiences may expect from the author of Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest. Weighed under years of punishment and insecurity, Logan presents the writer as an empty shell, with barely a wisecrack mustered from his lips. Occasionally, we see his old façade reemerge, as he breaks into verbose and loquacious monologues… but then this is always followed by a moment’s pause, as if a small rest is needed after such an exertion. It’s a realistic but reverential portrayal of the storied figure, and Logan breathes great depth into the role – you can’t help but become invested in this worn-down writer, hopeful that he can escape this mental prison he’s constructed for himself.
But, in a sucker-punch of a second act, Logan delivers a radiant reading of The Ballad of Reading Gaol – the long-form poem that Wilde wrote while in exile, reflecting on his time in jail. Through Logan’s masterful control of the verse, we’re thrust back into the anxiety-inducing rhythms of prison, complete with existential threat and bloody violence. Delivered in this manner, the poem seems almost written by Edgar Allen Poe, with its strict rhyme scheme serving as yet another prison for Wilde (and the audience) to languish in.
Coincidentally, Wilde published the poem under the name ‘C.3.3’, his cell number from his own stay at ‘Reading Gaol’; it would seem Wilde never truly found freedom, still very much trapped there in his mind. As Wilde posits what it means to be free, so do we in the audience, retracing the last few months and looking forward to the mysterious unknown: we can only hope we succeed where he failed.
Wilde Without the Boy is on until 27 September. For more information visit The Playground Theatre website.