By Darby Turnbull
Verity Norbury’s new play After Oscar has the noble intention of shedding light and honouring the sacrifice Constance Wilde, wife to Oscar. She herself was a minor celebrity in her time; politically active in early women’s suffrage in Britain, a writer and an intellectual. Oscar Wilde’s martyrdom: his imprisonment for ‘gross indecency’ at the height of his social and artistic success, two years hard labour and death in poverty has eclipsed the very real social, financial, and emotional consequences of his brilliant wife and two sons Vyvyan and Cyril. The play explores the aftermath of his trial, how Constance rebuilt her life in Europe with her two sons under the name Holland (an old ancestral name) and navigated Oscar’s involvement in her and her son’s lives. She did her best, staying in contact with him, visiting in prison when his mother died and offering financial support on the condition that he cut ties with his lover Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas but Oscar’s self-destructive devotion to Bosie culminating in him dying in squalor in 1900, shortly after his release. He never saw his sons again. Constance herself died in 1898 of a botched operation after her physical afflictions were misdiagnosed. Modern research shows that she most likely suffered from Multiple Sclerosis.
Norbury’s text struggles to provide nuanced context and exploration about the society in which these people live and how it shapes their ideals and personalities. The dialogue is heavy in exposition and often settles for easy examples of Constance being humiliated or undermined in ways that are readily familiar without much insight into class or status. The slights she suffers are never subtle or coded but vulgar and ostentatious, as if the writer is worried the audience won’t get the point. The actors are all game to provide broad characterisations when necessary but the play needs far more insight into how British and European society in that period worked. Wilde broke and flouted the rules and propriety of that system whilst being reverent to it; his Irishness, his socialism and ultimately his sexuality were indiscreetly displayed and therefore had to be punished. It’s easy to blame an individual for his selfishness and indiscretions and he absolutely deserves accountability for the effect it had on people he pertained to love; but what of the system that upheld and continues to uphold injustice for those outside of the very slim demographic that it benefits. The writing is unable or unwilling to engage with these ideas. The play ends with outright condemnation of Wilde and empathic valorisation of Constance, inferring that some people play the victim whilst some genuinely are? There is so much potential in the script that wasn’t utilized, a possible discourse about passion versus rationality. Exploration into Constance’s feminism and the movements she was involved in and how those movements overlooked working class women and women of colour. How does Constance and the women around her navigate that? Also, the text doesn’t engage too deeply with the fact that it was a man that Oscar was unfaithful with. How does Constance navigate her husband’s homosexuality? There are direct parallels to be made between the devotion Constance shows Oscar despite his neglect and the cost to her and Oscar’s inability to surrender his relationship with Bosie. It is presented in the context that his conduct ruined her life and he was merely self-absorbed. That’s a completely valid interpretation of how Constance might have felt in the aftermath but what of a nuanced conversation about how a society more or less forced queer people into heteronormative marriages in exchange for social currency and possibly the genuine belief that it would ‘cure’ them of their desires. And how the millions of women navigated the confusion, betrayal and lack of resources to forge ahead. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel is particularly good at exploring this dynamic.
Georgia Radley as Constance is well suited to playing this resourceful, passionate and intelligent woman. She exudes dignity, steely resolve, exhaustion and hope, sometimes heroic, sometimes deluded. The text doesn’t give her many notes to play but she finds an admirable emotional fluidity which serves her character well. More direction could have been beneficial in her physical performance; Constance lives with chronic pain and debilitating paralysis in her limbs; more works needed to be done to establish consistency to her disability.
Rebecca O’Dowd brings effervescence and flamboyance to Constance’s confidante and companion Lady Marigold Reginald. One of the stronger elements in the text is stressing the need to women to be allies and support each other both physically and emotionally. Marigold never fully comes into her own as a character, despite O’Dowd making some strong performance choices. I wanted her to have more of a point of view, for her to be able to have engaging conversations with Constance about privilege, motherhood and compromise and autonomy but ultimately exists for her warnings not to be heeded.
Berk Ozterk and Dominic Gruenwald each bring quick wit, energy and sensitivity to their various supporting roles. Gruenwald does his best as Oscar Wilde playing a smugness that ultimately turns to horror at his predicament and vengeful cruelty and dismissiveness as he sinks deeper into dissolution. Ozterk embodies privileged naivety as Constance’s brother Otto who is a useful social tool but weak willed and hypocritical when it comes to his own finances and fidelity.
Director Kate Tompkins and Norbury (who is credited as co-director) have designed a very stuffed and busy production which I believe don’t always serve the text. They’ve sourced some beautiful props and set pieces which I think could have been used more artfully and thoughtfully. Likewise the scenes needed more careful pacing to develop emotional transitions. The text has a few moments of direct address to the audience but there were many instances where it was unclear if the actor was directed to deliver their line towards the audience or if it was a breaking of the fourth wall. The sound and lighting changes unfortunately didn’t do much to clarify this, there were a few missed cues which the cast handled with aplomb.
Costumes by Pete Henson are attractive and characterful, however the dresses for the ladies are either a poor fit or are not worn correctly. I understand limited resources can effect this but clearly time and expense has gone into sourcing and/or making them but little details matter such as incorporating appropriate undergarments so they sit properly or ensuring that they are wearing them in the ways that people of their class would in public and private. The two actors needed more time to rehearse in their costumes and the blocking adjusted so they could move more fluidly in character. Especially in this play where dress and freedom of dress is a recurring theme; Constance is part of the Dress reform society that links women and children’s liberation with the practicality of their dress. My impression was that the costumes were inhibiting the actors rather than the characters and nuances in the way they are worn can inform a lot about a character, their class and their emotional progression.
I was very excited for the opportunity to see a piece that explored the overlooked achievements of Constance Wilde and critically explored the legacy of Oscar but in its current iteration I don’t believe this play was equal to the task. Norbury’s research and clear passion for her subject might make for a more interesting documentary if various points of view and world building were explored. But as a piece of drama, it falls short of engaging with the rick potential in the subject matter. I was fortunate enough to be joined by a theatre maker who specialises in writing theatre about overlooked or underexplored women from history in addition to key historical figures and she is particularly accomplished at writing about them in the context of their privilege or lack of, race, position in society and ultimate legacies and she was invaluable in helping me accumulate my thoughts on how this piece navigates these within the text and production. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the audience responded warmly and enthusiastically during the show and curtain call and were clearly relishing the opportunity to return to live performance and show their support for these independent artists.
Those interested in reading more about Constance Wilde could check out Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde was shaped by the women he knew by Eleanor Fitzsimons and Constance; the tragic and scandalous life of Mrs Oscar Wilde by Franny Moyle