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A CurtainUp London Review
In Extremis/De Profundis

I want to be able to say that the two great turning points of my life were when my father sent me to Oxford and when society sent me to jail.   --Oscar Wilde, De Profundis


In Extremis is a new play written by Neil Bartlett, the Artistic Director of the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith about Oscar Wilde's visit to a clairvoyant a few days before the libel trial that was to start a series of events which resulted in Wilde's prosecution, imprisonment and ill health from forced labour. Recent information has claimed that Wilde died, not from syphilis as widely believed, but from the form of meningitis which results from an untreated ear infection. Wilde had a perforated ear drum in Reading Gaol. The clairvoyant, a Mrs Robinson, had seen Wilde on a previous occasion and predicted that he would be involved in "foreign travel" which proved correct.

The situation leading Wilde to Mrs. Robinson again have been extensively documented and also dramatized in several recent plays, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and The Judas Kiss (see link below). But Bartlett's evidence is sourced from that written by Mrs Robinson (Sheila Hancock) who steps out of character to introduce and to remind us that everything we will hear is her account of the evening.

It is an atmospheric piece, both characters initially stand in the shadows while we hear the tick tock of a large clock, see a vase of white lilies, emblem of Wilde's Oxford college, Magdalen, and two beautifully upholstered chairs. Wilde's (Corin Redgrave) entrance is highly studied. He stands, haughty, his head at a Wildean angle, snarling distaste. Redgrave gives him the strains of a Dublin accent instead of the Oxford English accent he is said to have affected. Much of this fifty minute piece is devoted to Mrs Robinson's explanation of Palmistry delivered as if a lecture to a formal gathering, with many of Wilde's epigrams embedded. Hancock is excellent as the woman who makes a good living out of the gullibility of others. However, she did not dissuade me from my reservations about historical drama which mixes fact and fiction and left me feeling it did little more than to set the scene for De Profundis.

The second part De Profundis is very moving as Redgrave reads Wilde's famous letter written in jail to Lord Alfred Douglas, known as Bosie. The copy sent to Bosie was torn up by him but fortunately Wilde's friend, Robert Ross had made two copies. (You can see the original on display at the British Library this year -- or read it in detail, per CurtainUp's Wilde resource page)

While the pairing of these two pieces is interesting, I think that Redgrave, who does not resemble Wilde, is better suited to playing him in the reflective, bitter and lonely mood of De Profundis. It is his more impressive performance of the evening. The scene is set in a prison, the stone floor blackened, the only colour a window high up with glimpses of the changing blue sky. Wilde, the former dandy is forced to wear a shapeless working man's suit of rough, grey fabric. We feel the sensory deprivation of this sensual man.

Together the pieces do resonate, especially as they are on stage as we honour Wilde in this year, the centenary of his death -- a hundred years ago to the day, as I write, on 30 November 1900.

IN EXTREMIS
Written by Neil Bartlett
DE PROFUNDIS
Written by Oscar Wilde edited by Merlin Holland
Directed by Corin Redgrave and Trevor Nunn

Starring: Corin Redgrave and Sheila Hancock
Design: Philippe Brandt
Lighting Design: Simon Fraulo
Sound Design: Christopher Shutt
Composer: Jonathan Goldstein
Running time: Two hours with an interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to December 16th 2000
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on November 29th 2000 performance at The Cottesloe, Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1



©Copyright 2000, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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