Art bred from destruction

Stephen Carleton: Davide Fenton, Brian Lucas: Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis

Brian Lucas, De Profundis

Brian Lucas, De Profundis

Brian Lucas, De Profundis

Director David Fenton and dancer-performer Brian Lucas have adapted Oscar Wilde’s literary epistle De Profundis for the stage. It’s remarkable that they are the first to do so, and their theatrical realisation of Wilde’s letter to his former lover (Lord Alfred Douglas, whose father hounded the pair and was ultimately responsible for Wilde’s imprisonment on charges of gross indecency) is equally extraordinary.

Fenton states, “This is not in any way an imitation of Wilde with outrageous ‘Wildean’ moments of artifice and conceit. It is rather a personal interpretation of the psychic and spiritual space of a man grappling to make sense of the Establishment’s systematic destruction of an artist and human being” (program note). This mission statement sums up the piece well. It is a 75-minute monologue—a literal speaking or acting out of the letter, the ‘prayer from the depths’—in which the performer ‘occupies’ rather than ‘does’ Wilde. This is not mimetic theatre; audience members hoping to see something equivalent to Stephen Fry ‘doing Wilde’ will come away disappointed. What we experience instead is a voyeuristic communion or an unflinching act of witnessing, of a great man stripped bare and humiliated, trying to make meaning, perhaps even art, of the shattering experience that is hard labour in a Victorian era prison.

We enter the theatre with the scenario already underway. The set designed by Raymond Pittman and Fenton reminds me of a Van Gogh straw-coloured domestic interior, stripped of its furniture. It is, of course, a prison cell. The naked performer (Brain Lucas) cowers in the upstage corner of what, at first glance, appears to be one of those perspectival modernist paintings; the lines of convergence meeting in the farthest corner make the human figure look larger than he is, but somehow at the same time shrinking, as though the scene may eventually consume him. Jason Glenwright lights the space in harmony with the pitch or timbre of the text and Pittman’s videography, projected on the cell walls, counterpoints the austerity with lavish images of ornate gilt picture frames, unfurling nosegays, snow falling (sometimes downward, sometimes up), cut crystal glasses and a beautiful youth—perhaps Bosie. It is an externalisation of Wilde’s internal life, with touchstones of the luxury and decadence he once enjoyed.

Lucas remains naked for almost the duration of the performance, and what follows is a harrowing, yet at times mordantly droll, recitation-in-counterpoint. The words (yes, 75 minutes of words from this performer RealTime readers will know for his lifetime commitment to Australian dance) are as beautiful as the video projections—searching, yearning, lyrical attempts to salvage understanding and a future from the prison experience. But the actions that accompany the spoken text reveal the true degradation of life inside Reading. Wilde/Lucas shits in a bucket, scrubs piss from the floor, fellates the prison guard, refuses food. “I was a man who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age,” he says as we listen to him recount the dizzy heights of his fame, but watch him plumb the depths. “I became the spendthrift of my own genius.”

As we listen to him ruminate on the ways in which his decadence yielded almost inevitable self-sabotage and then state-induced punishment and destruction, I cannot help but think of Myuran Sukamaran—he and Andrew Chan were shot dead on Nusakambangan that same morning—and his inverse trajectory to Wilde, from drug runner to artist, someone whose prison plight outraged most Australians. His death horrified us; so should Wilde’s have horrified his contemporaries. It did, of course, but for all the wrong reasons. I thought also of another gay playwright, Joe Orton, whose prison stint emboldened his anti-authoritarianism and soldered the rebel artist, and of Genet and his body of work that turns on the eroticisation of homo-social prison culture. Neither’s work would have been possible, politically or culturally, were it not for Wilde.

Lucas navigates the schism between what is said and what is seen in De Profundis with such dexterity. He makes himself so physically, unselfconsciously vulnerable throughout this one-man (actually, two- if you count the intermittently present, silent prison guard) tour de force. It’s grim viewing, but hypnotically compelling. Brian Lucas deals with the spoken word so cannily. I suspect what we’ve witnessed here is another transformation: of a vintage Australian performer, from contemporary dance maestro to fully-fledged stage actor. Another career turn that Wilde has helped broker.

Brisbane Powerhouse and Metro Arts, Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, writer Oscar Wilde, adaptation David Fenton, creators Brian Lucas, David Fenton, set design Raymond Pittman, David Fenton, music David Megarrity, lighting Jason Glenwright, video Brandon Dowery; Brisbane Powerhouse, 22 April-2 May

RealTime issue #127 June-July 2015 pg. 45

© Stephen Carleton; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

11 June 2015