Made in Manchester/ Dark Smile/ The Independent, 4 December 2009
In 1897 Oscar Wilde (Simon Callow) was released from prison after serving
two years for gross indecency. He moved across the Channel to Europe and settled there permanently, using the name
Sebastian Melmoth. He regularly tried to get into contact with his wife Constance and two young boys, but never succeeded.
She died in Genoa in 1898, and Wilde visited the city a year later in a last attempt to be near her. Thomas Wright's
play imagined what might have happened during that visit.
Through an ingenious use of sound-effects, directors Neil Gardner and Joyce Branagh
conjured up a sensuous world in which human contact seemed so much more relaxed than Wilde had endured back in Britain.
He developed a close relationship with Omero (Samuel Barnett, with a wonderful lilting Italian accent), and a less passionate,
though no less valuable alliance with Dr. Bazzani (Blake Ritson). Omero had no idea of Wilde's true identity; although
it was implied that Bazzani might have known, he did not reveal it in public. They realized that Wilde was engaged on a mental
as well as a familial journey; through his visit to Genoa he tried to recover some of the love of beauty that characterized
his life before he went to jail. He might not have had too much success, but one had to admire Wilde's persistence; his determination
to rise above the humiliation of the previous two years and live out what remained of his life in comparative serenity.
Wright's play had Wilde recounting a fable to Omero involving a king and
a coin with a straightforward moral - that one should be true to oneself first, and then to others. Wilde strove to achieve
this state of mind, even if it involved a certain degree of mental suffering; on one occasion the strain proved too great
for him, and he drowned his sorrows in drink.
As Wilde, Simon Callow turned in a remarkably restrained performance; this was
not the flamboyant personality who dominated London society in the early 1890s., but a more reflective person looking
to fulfil a personal goal. He found solace in Omero's company; the two of them were remarkably close - perhaps homosexually
attracted to one another - but Wilde did not pursue the younger man with the same degree of passionate fervour as
he had done in his earlier life with Lord Alfred Douglas (aka Bosie).
In the end we were left feeling that Wilde had at last found peace. An unnamed narrator
informed us in a coda that history has also been kind to him, as he is now recognized as a great dramatist with
a keen insight into human behaviour.
Death in Genoa was the second play in a collaboration involving The
Independent newspaper and the production companies Made in Manchester and Dark Smile, where radio plays were made available
for free download. What a pity the initiative did not continue. However the plays that were issued are still available: definitely
worth a listen.