What can we learn from the fall of Oscar Wilde? After plummeting from the highs of Victorian society – which he routinely bashed in his plays – into a scandalous court trial, Wilde lived his last years in jail. Those reports from prison cast him as a spectator of his own tragedy: a man punished and disgraced following the public outing of his homosexuality.
Pan Pan, who have already radically adapted Shakespeare, Ibsen and Chekhov, admirably offer something new on Wilde’s legacy. This cunning production weaves the writer’s biography and work through a playful conceit: a drama therapy class for prison inmates. But there is another source of inspiration for the company, as gay actor Mark O’Halloran’s rural upbringing (“Aside from the crushing loneliness?”) and literary criticism provide additional context.
For three prisoners (O’Halloran, Andrew Bennett and Dylan Tighe), same-sex practices are caught up in the toxic dynamics of dominance and emasculation. An introduction to Oscar Wilde is considered a means to end their homophobia. You’d be right to suspect the motives of Una McKevitt’s tactless drama therapist and Judith Roddy’s silent prison guard. Director Gavin Quinn’s staging contains a similarly hopeful note but is also realistic.
As the inmates chaotically butt heads over readings of Wilde’s work, with use of listening devices that never become clear, we’re expected to forget previous concerns such as the crimes they committed and the task of putting on a prison pride parade. Aedín Cosgrove’s nice workshop set is primed for uncanny effects under Zia Bergin-Holly’s lighting. The production, however, never fully departs.
Stranger displays might have better served Pan Pan’s finely spun imagery from Wilde’s work: the monstrous reflection from The Birthday of the Infanta, Lady Windermere’s conservative world view, and the broken family in A Woman of No Importance. Quinn and company, oddly hesitant, are more bound by the naturalistic gestures of homophobia both externalised and internalised. You’d wish they’d go further.
It’s tragic, nonetheless, to see individuals only able to interpret Wilde’s emotional scenes through mocking displays of sexual violence. But a dutiful reading of Wilde’s letter to his lover Alfred Douglas puts it all into perspective. When society crushingly shames its individuals, it’s difficult to imagine how anyone could return to a place of affectionate understanding.
That could be Wilde’s greatest society critique, and Pan Pan’s service to it, whilst certainly ambivalent, is importantly earnest.
The Importance of Nothing is on until 19th November 2016 at Project Arts Centre, Dublin. Click here for more details.