“I was made for destruction;” Wilde at Heart, Patrick Marley

The last time I saw a one-man show which an actor had personally researched about the life, times and trials of his lifelong hero, it was Simon Callow’s brilliantly vivid journey Inside Wagner’s Head. Callow made a powerful, emotive case for Wagner’s flawed genius, and the evening was packed with fascinating information: in fact, so bursting with facts was it that when I wrote my review, I classified Callow’s piece as a lecture.  Wilde at Heart, on the other hand, while also scrupulously well-researched by Patrick Marley, is indubitably a piece of theatre.

This is not to say that it’s light on detail; it is a production born of serious scholarship, as well as evident passion for Wilde, his art and the exquisitely beautiful, yet painful world he created and inhabited with increasing danger as his success blossomed. The whole piece is a tapestry of reality, with a succinct narrative frame holding many of Wilde’s own words, letters among his circle, and excerpts from his plays and poetry, whose elegant lyricism contrasts with other, more prosaic contemporary sources: the wording of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, which recriminalised homosexuality in time for Wilde’s disastrous double trial in 1895, extracts from which we also hear. Wilde’s smooth, sharp epigrams stud the piece like coruscating stars, some familiar and others fresh, but their biting humour doesn’t prevent the overall buildup of intense pathos as the evening unfolds.

Marley deftly imposes a loose narrative structure on Wilde’s rocket-like rise to fame (and sticky subsequent spiral into ignominy and early death) with passing references to his obsession with palm readers and superstition, tracing the roots of his final disaster in his very earliest moments of promise at Oxford, where he flippantly foretold his own fate: fame and notoriety. Life is a messy thing, and it can be dangerous to push biography too hard into logic, but the tragic irony that Wilde set such great store by fortunetellers, yet was in fact his own most reliable prophet, brings welcome shape here. Meanwhile Marley’s excellent instinct for pace, which gives each episode room to breathe, yet soon sweeps us along to the next curve of Fate, maintains effective tension. His lightning characterisations fill the stage with figures from Wilde’s life, as well as from his dramas, from the glamourous to the grim: his magnificent, self-deluding mother Speranza; a disgusted cross-examining judge, once a friend; a prison guard caught up in simple human sympathy for his plight. Wilde himself comes across as a mercurial character, voice and accent shifting over the years, body language alternately affected or relaxed – a chameleon who liked to please his public, and his friends, with an ever-more refined version of himself. Eventually, in prison and in extremis, he discovered the true courage of his nature, in the very vortex of his suffering: and Marley’s bitterly tender reading of a poignant extract from De Profundis, where an enlightened Wilde explains the value of humility to a deaf, unrepentant Bosie is the raw, unsettling emotional apex of the piece. While Marley doesn’t attempt to disguise Wilde’s selfishness and unerring talent for self-destruction in life, it is Bosie’s oafish cruelty which restores our sympathy to Oscar’s side in death.

Patrick Marley has toured Wilde at Heart internationally, for years, and occasionally his own intense familiarity with this demanding text shows through; sometimes he rushes a phrase here and there, and we find we lose a word or two. But this can’t honestly detract from such a beautifully observed, moving and compelling performance, which gives us a good sense of Wilde’s personal history in all its brilliant, bitter drama.

Rating: Four

Reviewed at The Fisher Theatre, Bungay, Suffolk on 19 October 2017

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