Saturday 22 October 2011

Constance - Oscar Wilde @ The Kings Head Theatre

Over the last month, the Kings Head Theatre have been producing the world premiere of Oscar Wilde's Constance.  A premiere?  Of Oscar Wilde?  In 2011?

Indeed.  Wilde began writing the play shortly after his release from prison in 1897 but it was never performed.  Instead, it was handed to an American actress, followed by the French writer Guillot de Saix in the 1930s and after multiple translations and over a century later, it arrives back on English shores for the first time in mutated, rather than original, form.  As such, it's arguable whether this even counts as a Wilde play.  His son, Vyvyan Holland, declares the work is "undoubtedly his" but there can be no doubt that what we receive today is in fact a much edited version.

It does, however, bear the hallmarks of a Wilde play.  Newly released from prison after indecent behaviour, Wilde clearly used this writing as an opportunity to indulge his wild side.  The characters indulge in a spot of light hedonism, the sexual tension palpable; the script is imbued with wonderful witticism; and of course there's the (almost obligatory) homo-eroticism. 

The result is a work that resembles Wilde, but is far from a wild play.  The script is incredibly wordy, which largely serves to hide the lack of plot.  There is little tension, little momentum, and little for the audience to invest in except a bunch of (sometimes) loathsome middle class characters regaling in melodramatic scandal.

It's then left to the production to pick up the pieces, but unfortunately the approach only highlighted the play's flaws.  In a bid to convince the audience this really is a Wilde play, those aspects were exaggerated to the point of tiresome hyperbole rather than allowing the script to breath.  Each line was delivered with a nod and knowing wink, which only made the self-assured witticism of the script (with its theatrical and literary humour) appear crude.  What's more, the stylized eloquence was overplayed to the point of pantomime, only heightened by the audience's incessant cooing and laughter at each of the narrative's farcical twists, whilst the fidgety stage action was overly-distracting.  In short, the implicit was made overly-explicit, patronising the audience in the process.

The end result is a limp play the production team have squeezed like a damp cloth, wringing out every ounce of the writer in an attempt to persuade audiences that this really is an Oscar Wilde play.  Ironically enough, in doing so, Constance loses any form of subtext or subtlety - the undercurrents of repressed sexual desires were all too plain to see.