Take a Walk on the Wilde Side: English Theatre in Milan brings the authentic voice of Oscar to the Gerolamo
This is becoming a habit. I’m sitting in a theatre in Milan watching a one-man show in English based on a classic literary text. A month ago I was left stunned and speechless by Guy Masterson-Mastroianni’s performance of Under Milk Wood at the Filodrammatici (J. Productions). Tonight, it was the turn of Gerard Logan at the Teatro Gerolamo to bring to life Oscar Wilde’s extended letter written in prison to his former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas (or “Bosie”, as he was known), followed by The Ballad of Reading Gaol, a poem that deals with the execution of one Wilde’s fellow inmates and contains the famous line “Yet each man kills the thing he loves”. And once again, I left the theatre awestruck and moved by great acting and with a deeper understanding of (this time) two works of literature that are familiar, but which the magic of live theatre transforms into a lived experience.
Directed by Gareth Armstrong, who also dramatised De Profundis (“From the depths” a quote from Psalm 130, “From the depths, I have cried out to you, O Lord”) and included extracts from the trials involving Wilde in 1895, Wilde Without the Boy takes the form of a monologue, with Logan’s Wilde dressed in a dark suit, neatly snapping out his jacket tails as he seats himself at a table in his cell, a mannerism that recalls his life before prison as the toast of London society and a regular at the Café Royal. With beautiful diction and easy, graceful gestures, Logan casts a spell over the audience in the bijou Teatro Gerolamo, which was recently used as the location for a music video featuring Italian pop stars Fedez and Francesca Michielin to mark the reopening of Italy’s theatres during the pandemic.
In Wilde without the Boy, we see the author of The Importance of Being Earnest plucking a sheet of paper from the table and giving feedback on his fickle and faulty lover’s inadequate, often callous, behaviour. (Example: while staying with Wilde in Brighton, Douglas fell ill with influenza and was nursed by Wilde but failed to return the favour when Wilde himself consequently caught the bug. Instead, Douglas checked in to the luxurious Grand Hotel and on Wilde’s 40th birthday sent him a letter informing him that he had charged the hotel bill to the author).
There’s something almost donnish in the Irish-born writer’s critique of Bosie – an artist’s muse / companion that only the great man himself cannot quite see (as everyone else can) how self-serving and worthless he really is, although the letter is also a catalogue of Douglas’s spiteful actions towards Wilde.
“I don’t write this letter to put bitterness into your heart, but to pluck it out of mine. For my own sake I must forgive you,” he writes.
Brought to the city by English Theatre Milan, the show is a double bill with Logan reciting The Ballad of Reading Gaol after the interval. During the discussion earlier in the evening, presented by Maggie Rose and Sal Cabras of ETM, Rose, who along with Riccardo Cassarino and Daniele Gaggianesi have translated Gareth Armstong’s Wilde without the Boy into Italian, asked Armstrong about the staging of The Ballad of Reading Gaol. He underlined its significance as a ballad, i.e. a story told in a popular song format, and pointed out how Simon Slater’s specially written score emphasises the musical rhythm of the piece. “The ballad is beautiful by itself but the music gives it an extra dimension,” he said. In the performance itself, Gerard Logan, now in a beige linen suit with cheesecloth shirt, next to a table in a continental café, tells the tale of Charles Thomas Wooldridge, former trooper in the Royal Horse Guards, who was convicted of cutting the throat of his wife, Laura Ellen. Woolridge was executed at the prison while Oscar Wilde was serving a sentence of hard labour there following his own conviction for gross indecency. The execution had a devastating effect on Wilde and the poem dramatises the traumatising effects of the execution on the inmates: “With sudden shock the prison-clock / Smote on the shivering air, / And from all the gaol rose up a wail / Of impotent despair”.
The ballad’s refrain contains one of Wilde’s most famous lines and is also quoted in the earlier Wilde without the Boy:
Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
During the performance, Logan is often swept up in the rhythm and it almost becomes a rap. Slater’s music swells to a crescendo and at one point the actor actually breaks into song. In the intimate space of the Gerolamo, the power of Logan’s voice is rendered especially impressive. At times, recalling Sir Ian McKellen’s Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, he summons an incredible vocal force that (almost) makes the walls shake. In fact, there is a sort of supernatural section of the Ballad where “evil sprites” and “phantoms” walk abroad. The danse macabre references to “the pirouettes of marionettes” are given a piquant twist of relevance due to the Gerolamo’s original status as a puppet theatre in the 19th century. (Check out its display of original marionettes next to the bar on the third floor. One of them looks like John Lennon.)
The great irony of the author’s life that the Ballad and Wilde without the Boy really brings out is the contrast between the pathos and depth of Wilde’s spirit and the shallowness and meanness of the character of the man he loved and who egged him on to sue the Marquess of Queensbury, Bosie’s father, in a campaign of filial spite. Sometimes you feel the whole thing – the trials, the scandal, Wilde’s imprisonment and early death – was just a massive mistake, an error of judgement that could easily have been avoided. And yet, it’s also the sequence of events that give rise to Oscar’s deepest emotions and darkest passages, a depth that belies the superficiality and sparkling wit of his writing before the tragedy.
It has been suggested that Oscar Wilde saw himself as a Christ-like figure and, certainly, his sacrifice on the altar of late Victorian morality has made him a key figure in the struggle for equal rights in the LGBTQ+ community / movement. One of the strengths of this ETM double bill is to allow the audience to hear the authentic voice of Oscar the man with all his failings, frailties and errors of judgement, his love of beauty in all its forms, as well as his insights into human nature and the spirit gained through suffering.
Bring on the next English monologue in Milan! It’s Rose Reilly, Footballer, by Lorna Martin, starring Cristina Strachan and directed by Maureen Carr. Followed by Ophelia, Herb-woman, written and directed by Maggie Rose with Australian actor Elena Pellone and featuring Gilberta Crispino.
Article by Robert Dennis, EasyMilano
Robert Dennis is a writer and Business English teacher based in Milan. He has been teaching for other 30 years both in the UK and in Italy. A long-time collaborator with John Peter Sloan, Robert published Business English (Gribaudo) in 2020. The book was launched with “Il Sole 24 Ore” and sold in newsstands throughout Italy. Robert has a website for people who want to learn Business English: Pay As You Learn.com. The site features keywords and phrases, audio and exercises to help professionals improve their language skills. A graduate in English from Oxford University, Robert is also a translator and a “buongustaio” who loves Italian food!