Oscar Wilde's grandson Merlin Holland: 'We've got as close as we can to hearing him speak'

Holland has co-written ”The Trials of Oscar Wilde”, which opens at Trafalgar Studios this week

'Nobody made too much of a fuss about Oscar when I was growing up' - Merlin Holland
'Nobody made too much of a fuss about Oscar when I was growing up' – Merlin Holland
© Ed Wright

Merlin Holland carries in his genes a quite incredible literary legacy; he's the only grandchild of Oscar Wilde.

I open our telephone conversation (Holland lives in France) by mentioning I recently read Richard Ellman's landmark biography of Wilde, but he is instantly cautious. "One has to be careful about Ellman, there are an awful lot of mistakes."

It's easy to understand Holland's prickliness regarding biographical interpretations of his grandfather. Being the sole genetic torch-bearer of a legacy such as Wilde's is no small responsibility. And it was clearly a major driving force behind his decision to co-write a play based on the transcripts of Wilde's 1895 indecency trial, which opens at Trafalgar Studios this week.

The play is adapted from Holland's 2003 book The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde, which made public for the first time the full transcripts of his grandfather's three successive trials, which were prompted by an infamous note from his lover 'Bosie' Douglas' father, the Marquess of Queensberry, referring to the celebrated playwright as a "sondomite" [sic].

Holland recalls that when the book first appeared, journalists invariably wanted to know whether the transcripts contained "anything new about the rent boys", a line of questioning he's clearly grown weary of. "Oscar went into court in part of defend his art against accusations of immorality, which is often forgotten and is an aspect we've tried to emphasise on stage. There are many other elements to the trials other than just being about his sexuality."

The Trials of Oscar Wilde, which was co-written by Holland and playwright John O'Connor, arrives in the West End following a premiere run at the St James Theatre in July and an extensive UK tour. A large part of its appeal is the chance to hear Wilde – arguably the most famous of all raconteurs – in his own words.

How easy was it to replicate the cadences of Wilde's voice, which was never recorded (Holland is adamant the 1900 recording is a fake)? "There was a bit of detective work involved but it's almost impossible to know for certain how he sounded. But there's a certain rhythm to the words that allows you to deduce the musicality of his voice."

The actor tasked with recreating Wilde is John Gorick, who the Observer's Susannah Clapp described as a "lofty and beguiling Wilde, his thumbs in his embroidered waistcoat pockets, his long cheeks fading slowly from confidence to misery."

Holland recalls reading the transcripts aloud himself at a literary festival, and being "astonished" to find in rehearsals that Gorick had followed almost exactly the same rhythm and intonation. "It was almost as if I was watching myself doing it on stage – and the fact that we'd both done it such a similar way told me that is the only way those words can be said. I think we've got as close as we can to hearing Oscar. It's spine-tingling."

'Spine-tingling' - John Gorick as Wilde
'Spine-tingling' – John Gorick as Wilde in The Trials of Oscar Wilde

'Part of the wallpaper'

I'm intrigued to know how and when Holland, who will be 70 next year, became aware of his grandfather's identity as one of the most iconic Victorian writers and wits.

"My father [Wilde's second son Vyvyan] last saw him at the age of eight, my mother was born ten years after he died and I many years after that, so we could rarely discuss any memories of him. He was just part of the wallpaper, really. I suppose the first time I became aware of him was when they put the blue plaque on his house in Tite Street in 1954."

It's perhaps surprising that Wilde was so much in the background of Holland's upbringing, but then interest in his grandfather has intensified dramatically in recent years. "Nobody made too much of a fuss about Oscar when I was growing up," adds Holland, "it was only really in the 1960s that interest began to grow, in part due to the publication of his letters."

Portrayals of Wilde since then have included, most notably, Stephen Fry in the acclaimed film biopic Wilde. I ask how Holland assessed his interpretation and he's quick to praise it, noting the parallels between Fry's public image and his grandfather's: "I've met him [Fry] a few times and he's a wonderfully Oscarian figure." Would Oscar be on Twitter were he around today? "No doubt," Holland chuckles.

More recently, Rupert Everett won acclaim (and a WhatsOnStage Award) in 2012's hit Hampstead Theatre revival of David Hare's The Judas Kiss. Holland was again impressed: "Rupert really made that production… it was a very strong performance that helped open people's eyes to the impact of the play. There have been so many attempts to dramatise Oscar's life and David's decision to focus on two specific days was a very clever one."

In a sense, that's the approach Holland has echoed in The Trials of Oscar Wilde; focussing on the detail of the trial, which is so often reduced to sound-bites, in order to gain a fuller understanding of the real Wilde. Is there perhaps a parallel to be drawn with the high-profile celebrity trials currently hogging the headlines? "There always seems to me something of the 'tall poppy syndrome' syndrome in society – that successful people need to be cut down to size." He adds that he found recent coverage of the accusations against Cliff Richard "appalling".

I posit that his grandfather would be proud to see the extent to which Holland has contributed to his legacy. "I'm just pleased to see that audiences are enjoying the play," he says. And he notes that the Trafalgar Studios run coincides with Oscar's 160th birthday (on 16 October), which will be marked by a charity gala. "You see, he's helping us out with PR from beyond the grave."

The Trials of Oscar Wilde is at Trafalgar Studios 2 from tonight until 8 November 2014