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In Extremis
Published on Wednesday, 22 May 2013

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3 stars

The Old Courtroom (venue website)
17, 19 May, 1-2 Jun, 7:00pm-7:45pm; 18 May, 7:00pm-7:45pm, 7:30pm-8:20pm; 30-31 May, 7:30pm-8:20pm
Reviewed by Darren Taffinder

 Suitable for age 16+ only.

In Extremis by Neil Bartlett is about Oscar Wilde’s visit to a palm reader, a few days before the start of his libel trail. At times it left me feeling like a non-Trekkie at a Star Trek convention, though admittedly, on the spectrum of Wilde obsessives I’m somewhat on the low end. I recently visited his grave in Paris – which was a lot grander than I was expecting – but otherwise, my knowledge begins and ends with the Stephen Fry film.

This particular production has several different casts, and in the version I saw the palm reader Mrs Robinson was played by Suzanne Procter, with Nigel Fairs as Wilde. Both were very good, but Fairs stumbled over a few of his early lines – a fact that would be easy to overlook in a less professional production, but was conspicuous at a performance where programmes cost £2 and expectations were much higher. Wilde comes across as a bit of a quip machine, with an annoying habit of quoting himself; I’m not sure if this makes him someone you’d really want at your dinner party, or someone you’d really want to avoid. It might, perhaps, reflect the difficulty of building a character around someone who has become almost a caricature.

But I really liked how both Mrs Robinson and Wilde addressed the audience throughout. The asides reveal a gap between what they were thinking and what they were telling each other, adding a nice tension to the piece. There’s a lovely use of repetition near the beginning, as Mrs Robinson explains how much she knew about Wilde and how surprised she was to see him. Every time she speaks to him she ends with ‘I said’, which gives her words a lovely rhythm.   

One of the key questions to which the play often returns is whether Mrs Robinson is a charlatan, or a practitioner of an inexact science that requires dedication and observation. Why would someone so clever, on the brink of the ‘trial of the century’, allow his fate to be determined by a person he didn’t quite believe? What makes Wilde such a tragic figure is that his fate was self-inflicted. Here’s someone, the David Beckham of his time, at the height of his fame – and he sues a man over an accusation he knows is true. The fact that he’s so charming, and could tell a good joke, only makes him more tragic. This might be why we won’t be seeing any plays about Jonathan Aitken, Jeffery Archer or Chris Huhne visiting a palm reader any time soon.

The play relied a little too much on insider knowledge, and I’m sure I would have appreciated some of the jokes more if I’d brushed up on my Wilde beforehand – or at least knew my Robbie from my Bosie. It was also short, at least 10 minutes shorter than its advertised fifty-five minutes, and the whole thing felt a little too light, too insubstantial.  I didn’t think I left knowing more about Wilde than I had when I went in, and at £10 a ticket it feels a bit steep too. Still – if you own the collected works of Wilde and have your own personal portrait of Dorian Grey in the attic, then this one is for you.

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