Message from the Depths

Rating: 4

De Profundis

by Jon Stapely 

Oscar Wilde never recovered from his stint in reading Gaol. His physical and mental decline proved inexorable, and he died a scant three years after his release, impoverished and alone. An ill-advised suit of libel against the Marquess of Queensbury for labelling him a ‘somdomite’ [sic] landed Wilde on trial for public indecency. Imprisonment swiftly followed. While incarcerated, Wilde penned a letter to his former lover, Lord Henry Douglas, son of the marquess who had authored the writer’s misery. This letter – bitter, affectionate, petty, loving and poetic – would eventually be published as De Profundis (‘from the depths’). Adapted for stage by Frank McGuinness, it is performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe by one of theatre’s great treasures, Shakespearean actor Simon Callow.

Alone and sparsely lit, gripping the arms of a wooden chair as though subject to interrogation, Callow works the full emotional range of Wilde’s words. It’s a glimpse of Wilde’s life that comes at a fascinating place – a man in the midst of breaking. He’s humbled and debilitated by what he’s been through, but not yet ruined by it – he speaks of life beyond prison and makes charmingly matter-of-fact, off-hand references to his own genius. Callow wisely seizes every opportunity for a laugh that the text grants him, delighting in each waspish quip. When he dismisses Douglas's ‘undergraduate’ poetry or complains about his prison’s ‘lack of style’, it’s delightfully, unmistakably Wilde.

Callow’s human achievement here should not be understated. It seems trite praising actors for feats of memory but the assured delivery of this 90-minute monologue is nothing short of superhuman. It evokes the how-did-he-do-that sensation of watching an acrobat or an Olympian. Simply committing this text to memory is worth boasting about; inhabiting it as completely and professionally as Callow does is something else entirely. The man is earning his salary. Though this is certainly not Callow’s first Fringe rodeo, seeing a performer of his calibre command a stage for 90 minutes never stops being a pleasurable novelty in this environment.

Callow has mentioned his admiration for Wilde, and it’s an indicator of his class as an actor that this performance never feels like an impression or caricature. it is instead its own creation – Wilde, but not. And this Wilde is not always sympathetic. At times his complaints at douglas seem unbearably petty. his glowing mentions of ‘robbie’ (ross, a rival to douglas for his affections) feel as barbed and catty as they were probably intended to be, and it’s hard to divine how he wanted douglas to respond. With rage? Jealousy? Contrition? humility? As Callow and mcGuinness understand, it doesn’t really matter. douglas claimed never to have read it.

Simon Callow in De Profundis runs until 26 August at Assembly Rooms Music Hall, EH2, www.assembly, 0131-623 3030