On 24 March 1895, Oscar Wilde visited the London flat of society palm-reader Mrs Robinson. But why? As a highly educated and intelligent man, we presume he didn't believe in palmistry. In fact, as he admits during this 50-minute, one-act play, he was in a time of personal crisis and just wanted someone to talk to.
Publicly accused of sodomy by the Marquess of Queensberry (whose son Alfred Douglas was having an affair with Wilde), he was about to attempt to sue his accuser for libel. This would start a chain of events that would lead to him being convicted of gross indecency, spend two years in prison, and die whilst in exile in France three years later.
In Extremis by Neil Bartlett is the imagined conversation between Wilde (played tonight by Nigel Fairs, who alternates with Charlie Buckland) and Mrs Robinson (Kate Copeland, alternating with Fiz Marcus). The event is presented as a ghostly rerun, with Mrs Robinson stating at the outset that they are both now dead. This device allows for some narrative asides from the characters which add texture to the piece.
Copeland plays the palm-reader straight-laced but with a hint of mystery. She has a definite flair for storytelling which helps to drive the piece along. Fairs' Wilde is suitably elegant, aloof and occasionally witty, but not quite as sparkling as one might hope. This could however be a deliberate reflection of his state of crisis.
Unfortunately the anticipation of being a fly on the wall during this conversation turns out to be more intriguing than the actual play. The dialogue dips rather too much into descriptions of the ‘science’ of palmistry, leaving too little time to develop the interplay between the characters and too little opportunity to represent Wilde’s famous wit. In Wilde’s own words, "details are the only things that really interest", but here one feels that other details may have been more interesting.
Reading up a little on Wilde’s trials, tribulations and demise before seeing In Extremis will help to get the most out of it – but it still doesn’t feel quite enough.