Roughly 127 years ago, Oscar Wilde (Damien Atkins) would write one of the most thought-provoking turn of the century letters in Europe. Interestingly, he was allowed to do so for health purposes – an early form of art therapy – while ailing in prison, thanks to a generous warden, towards the end of his detainment. The letter is partly an expression of contempt towards the exuberance of his lover Lord Alfred Douglas or “Bosie” (Colton Curtis) and the Lord’s family who caused Wilde’s cruel demise. On the other hand, it bears witness to the spiritual awakening of a weakened and vulnerable genius. It’s clearly great source material to work with as a playwright (Gregory Prest), lyricist (Sarah Wilson), and composer (Mike Ross). Prose from the original letter is cleverly interjected in various genres: ballads, poetry readings, epigrams, comedy, and dance.


“We were illegal,” proclaims Oscar Wilde’s best friend Robbie (Jonathan Corkal-Astorga) several times with unsettling conviction, setting the tone for this 19th century story. He will smoothly break the fourth wall throughout the show, chit-chatting with Wilde as he accompanies ballads and underscores other components. Also setting the tone are the projections (Frank Donato), from an initial floral painting adorned in the thickest gold frame to sepia toned videos of the couple which dot the production. Thankfully, they are never distracting. They feed us tiny pieces of Wilde’s mind, always keeping us intrigued. The set (Lorenzo Savoini) strikingly transposes us from that initial picture to a prison cell that feels more like a cube framed with neon stripes – an edgy juxtaposition to the historical prose. The lighting (also Savoini) complements well to suck us in while never leaving us bored. In fact, this hot imprint on your mind is hard to shake off after leaving the theatre. Bursts of light scattered throughout a very well utilized playing space set the scene for mini performances within the performance. Nonetheless, it’s appropriately minimalist with just the right dose of props (Greg Chambers, Lisa Nighswander) to move the action forward, like a glass bottle of libation which fuels Wilde to contemptuously share details regarding lavish parties he felt forced to endure and fund.


Bosie is suitably stylish (Ming Wong) next to a disheveled Wilde. The choreographed movement (Indrit Kasapi) between the two is wildly beautiful, capturing the duality of romance and seduction, fury and catharsis. I wanted more. And I want to know how Curtis learnt to get those socks off without ever using a finger!


Particularly cathartic are Wilde’s religious revelations. One of my favourite biblical stories evoked by Atkins’ Wilde comments sadly on how the prodigal son receives“redemption” while a homosexual in prison can beg on his knees all he wants but will always remain condemned. In addition, he proclaims how Christ even associated with lepers, yet Bosie – unlike Robbie – would not even tip his hat to acknowledge Wilde’s existence while the writer was being exiled. Of the mini scenes, particularly memorable is one in which Atkins addresses the audience while picking epigrams from a tin pitcher and having us guess the works they come from.


Prest who doubles as director is able to skillfully get across how this particular breakup is viewed as failure wrapped in shame. In his notes he points out how this is the world view still today. Why don’t we view breakups as inevitable shifts, organic changes, or evolving opportunities? When is it right to let go?


In terms of gay relationships, while we are certainly afforded many privileges here and now, we know that in many parts of the world homosexuality is still criminalized. Has enough changed? So this show in some ways acts as a reminder of how far we have come, yet how far we still have to go. Certainly lots to reflect on. Maybe that’s its greatest power. Go see for yourself at Soulpepper until February 23.