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Reading Oscar Wilde in Reading prison: Shocking, haunting and exceptionally sad

The place where Oscar Wilde was incarcerated is being opened up to the public as part of a series of performances by Artangel


Inside is the latest exhibition curated by art collective Artangel. It explores themes of incarceration, of separation and of being stripped of your freedom and takes place in Reading prison. The company has opened the place up to the public for the first time since it shut in 2013.

Reading is a fairly standard example of a modern prison. A Victorian creation designed by architect George Gilbert Scott (who also designed the Albert memorial), it barely changed from when it first opened in 1844 to when it closed three years ago. It looks like the prison in Porridge and all those other prison programmes you see on the TV: long narrow corridors, thick walls, heavy metal doors, not much light and small cells which cram in a toilet and sink alongside a bed and a tiny table.

But Reading is more famous than many other clinks, mainly for one of its inmates. Oscar Wilde spent his jail sentence there between 1895 and 1897. Back then, Reading was pioneering the Separation System, where prisoners were forbidden to come into any contact with anyone. They spent 23 hours a day in their cell alone and even when they were allowed out, they were hooded to prevent eye contact with other prisoners.

Artangel allow the public to move around the prison, inspect the rooms and to wander up and down its cruciform hallways. It is an oppressive, depressing place and it is only when you are in the building itself that you realise how devastating an effect it must have had on Wilde. Serving a sentence of gross indecency, the flamboyant socialite, a master of words and charm, was allowed to read only a prayer book or a bible for the first three months. After then it was a book a week from the prison library – you can probably imagine the choice on offer.

Even as you experience it as part of Inside - filled with curious culture enthusiasts - there's something awful about this prison. Artangel have commissioned works from artists such as Steve McQueen – an odd, gold-plated mosquito net hung over a bunk bed – paintings by Marlene Dumas, photographs by Wolfgang Tillmans and much more. Two of the most striking installations are by Robert Grober. In Waterfall, Grober cuts a square into a prison coat hung on the wall. Inside the square is a little waterfall - rocks, sticks, moss, running water - and, if you get close enough, a breeze wafts over you from the tiny sanctuary. It is a freedom hidden inside, right at the heart of a person – it represents the thing that lives, untouchable, at our hearts, something like hope, perhaps.

Whatever you want to call that untouchable thing, Wilde's was entirely eroded by his experience in Reading prison. You can sense it in the words of his long letter De Profundis – literally translated as from the depths – which is performed in the chapel as part of the exhibition every Sunday by a different person - Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw and Maxine Peake are among those reading. Actor, writer and director Neil Bartlett read the entire piece – which was penned by Wilde in his cell in Reading – the day I visited. Bartlett, upright, precise and direct, sat at a table and read, non-stop, for six hours. It is the writing of a man betrayed. A man coming to terms with his foolishness and a man left on his own for a very, very long time. I was struck by how resigned the tone was, but how clearly he saw how badly he had been treated by his lover, Alfred Lord Douglas.

It is exceptionally sad listening to it, especially listening to it only yards away from the place where Wilde wrote it. Not many inmates during Wilde's time would have been able to write or read. If these are the words of a man in prison able to communicate his feelings, imagine what was going on in the minds of those who couldn't. Shocking, bracing and haunting.

Inside - Artists and Writers in Reading Prison runs at Reading prison until 30 October.