Theatre, particularly historical drama, loves traces – things mentioned in passing, buried in letters or contemporary accounts. From these meagre roots stories branch out and real lives bleed into fiction as the past becomes a stage-bound phantasmagoria of ‘what-ifs’. Neil Bartlett confronts this head-on in his recreation of Oscar Wilde’s encounter with Victorian palm-reader Mrs Robinson, the week before his trial for sodomy.
This small but perfectly formed play – not seen in London since it was commissioned in 2000 by the National Theatre to mark the centenary of Wilde’s death – is based on a single fact: in a telegram dated 25 March 1895, Wilde told his friend Ada Leverson that he had been to visit the famed Mrs Robinson the night before. From this detail, Bartlett weaves a melancholic tale in which the pair’s encounter becomes an exploration of hopes, fears and the elasticity of truth.
Like the current revival of The Judas Kiss, this production catches Wilde in a moment of crisis, looking for guidance as to whether or not he should flee the country. But this play opens with Mrs Robinson addressing us now: from the outset, we know we are watching the recreation of events happening to the long-since dead. Her narration is imperfect and self-interested – storytelling by someone eager to enshrine herself in history.
Kate Copeland is compelling as Mrs Robinson, a precise and measured figure who drops the names of the lords and ladies she knows with the anxiety of someone constantly shoring up her social foundations. Palmistry, like spiritualism, was much in vogue at the end of the nineteenth century, but just round the corner from her home is a house full of boys who also provide a service to Wilde.
Director Caroline Devlin fills her production with clever mismatches. Wilde isn’t wearing the lemon-coloured gloves Mrs Robinson professes to recall, and he isn’t flamboyantly attired. What we see on stage is myth-making in action: the figure of the playwright sketched from a future vantage point, exaggerated by time and notoriety.
Nigel Fairs’ Wilde is actually a quiet and reserved figure, cold and embittered. When he takes over from Mrs Robinson as narrator, we learn that this self-styled modern man is trapped by the fiction he has created for himself. He loathes his public image, preferring the role of puppet-master, yanking the strings of audiences with his words. It’s an effective performance, tinged with sadness and marred only by Fairs’ occasional hesitation over his lines.
As the playwright and the palm-reader turn to us and attempt to outdo each other in their reading of the other’s character, verisimilitude as an impossible goal is replaced by a much more human truth: that we see what we want, or need, to see. Wilde may sneeringly dismiss Mrs Robinson as a dull woman, but he needs her to chart out his course for him. The reassurance of making connections is as much behind palm-reading as it is writing.
Ultimately, Mrs Robinson finds her place by putting the playwright in his. And the effectiveness of In Extremis lays in the way Bartlett juxtaposes conflicting accounts of Wilde’s character – already an invention by the man himself – to explore the process of storytelling that underpins and informs how we receive history and pass it on.
Interestingly, Mrs Robinson’s palmistry book The Graven Palm (which she mentions proudly) is still in print today. Our need to conjure truth out of ambiguity is undiminished. Is the triumph that Mrs Robinson predicts for Wilde at the end of the play made real by his literary legacy or exposed as a lie by the failure of his trial? Bartlett quite rightly leaves the answer up to us.