Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde at the Gielgud Theatre

It s been hard to escape Oscar-mania these days - the Wildean variety, that is, rather than anything to do with gold statuettes or Shakespeare in Love. In terms of biopics on the great 19th century novelist and playwright, first we had the motion picture starring Stephen Fry, then on stage, David Hare s take on post-trial Wilde with Liam Neeson doing the honours, and most recently, Tom Stoppard s analysis of contemporary A E Housman as compared to, you guessed it, Oscar Wilde. We ve also had the recently dedicated reclining sculpture near Trafalgar Square, the nine-lives stage production of Wilde s seminal work, An Ideal Husband, care of Peter Hall, and not one, but two, film adaptations of the 1895 social satire soon to be released.

If you ve somehow managed to miss all of this, and are still craving your Oscar fix, there s now Moises Kaufman s Gross Indecency, which arrives at the Gielgud from New York via Plymouth.

Unlike Hare or Stoppard, Kaufman s approach is more documentary than drama, sticking closely to the facts rather than creative conjecture. In support of his summary of the three trials which led to Wilde s imprisonment for homosexuality (ie sodomy, ie the ‘gross indecency of the title), Kaufman employs a barrage of court transcripts, letters, biographies and other sources. And, while impressive as a research effort, the result on stage can verge on the dry and somewhat irritating as nearly every other line is accompanied by a narrator popping up to credit the citation. It also leaves you wondering whether Kaufman, who wrote and directed, has contributed a single original word.

The best words on offer belong to Wilde himself whose witty retorts during the first trial include ‘I never do when instructed by the prosecuting counsel to ‘Never mind your doctor s orders . But Michael Pennington s Wilde is a finished man rather than a flamboyant one. As his life and reputation crumbles before his eyes, largely due to his own arrogance, there s little left to laugh about.

Far more entertaining are the quartet of young narrators who occupy the orchestra pit. Despite their stiff-collared image - they resemble a panel of contestants from an early episode of University Challenge - they demonstrate an almost improvisational glee while adopting a variety of voices and personae to represent footnotes, reviewers, angry prostitutes, rent boys, baying citizens and even Queen Victoria. My favourite is Christopher Staines who, at the beginning of the second act, hams it up as a professor umming his way through an explanation of the significance of the Wilde trials to art and sexual openness. The ploy is a gross condescension, suggesting that Kaufman doesn t trust the audience to draw its own conclusions, but it is, nevertheless, the most amusing part of the evening.

Terri Paddock