Simon Callow in De Profundis
@Assembly Rooms Venue 20
12.30 every day until 26th August.
5 Stars *****
De Profundis (Latin, meaning from the depths) is a one-man play based on the letter Oscar Wilde wrote to his ex-lover Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie) between 1896-1897 while incarcerated in Reading Prison. The play tells the story of the famously destructive love affair between the two which led to Wilde losing his good name, his fortune and to being imprisoned for the charge of gross indecency.
The play opens with Callow seated onstage in a functional prison-like chair. A spotlight suspended from above illuminates his face. The rest of the stage is bare and cast in darkness. The theatre was packed and the audience seemed to hold their breath for the entire play.
I have seen Simon Callow on stage once before in Noel Coward’s Present Laughter, so I knew I was in for a treat. He is outstanding on film, but his real place is on stage. I have viewed other readings of this letter online and on TV, but none have come close to Callow’s portrayal of Wilde. Through Callow we feel Wilde’s devastation at being imprisoned, he was ‘crushed with anger, bewildered by terror’. He says of Bosie ‘In less than three years you ruined me from all points of view’.
During his time in prison, Wilde’s mother to whom he was very close, died and he was unable to attend her funeral. His wife Constance Lloyd filed for divorce and brought legal proceedings against him, so he could never see his two sons again. For Wilde, the hardship and ‘disgrace of prison life’ was ‘nothing’ compared to losing his children.
At this point as in others during the play, I was moved to tears. It is difficult to describe the experience of hearing the voice of someone else’s distress and pain told through the medium of such a deeply talented actor. I honestly felt at times that Oscar Wilde himself was telling me his story, beseeching me and stirring in my heart a wrenching compassion for his circumstances.
I was so deeply affected by Callow’s performance that immediately after the show I felt as though I had used up every emotion within me and I had to retreat to a quiet place. More than anything I wanted to find Callow, hug him and console him as I felt that during his performance he had lived through Wilde’s pain.
De Profundis is an important piece of theatre for us even though our community enjoys unprecedented freedoms now, there are people all over the world living Oscar Wilde’s tragic reality. Russia particularly comes to mind. Let us not forget these stories or become complacent at the rights we enjoy now from the sacrifice of those who went before us.
De Produndis is the most passionate, moving piece of theatre I have ever experienced. The defining performance of Callow’s remarkable career.