Thursday, 3 July 2008

De Profundis: the gods are strange

Actor Corin Redgrave has appeared only rarely on a public stage since suffering a major heart attack while speaking at a rally in support of travellers in Basildon three years ago last month. So the chance to witness his reprise reading of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis at the National on Tuesday (he first did it at the same venue, as well as in a special recording made from Wilde’s former prison cell at Reading jail, to mark the centenary of Wilde’s death) was too good to miss.

Redgrave’s physique – at 68 he still holds himself with the same thickset, chunky strength he brought to many of his characters – belied a frailty that only became apparent when he stood to take his thunderous applause. Assisted from his chair by a stagehand, I thought at first he was acting out Wilde’s own broken health, just as he had done Wilde’s broken spirit in this 60-minute monologue from the famous letter Wilde wrote from jail to Lord Alfred Douglas, ‘Bosie’, the architect of his downfall. Sadly, it wasn’t acting.

Nor, you felt, was the passion that Redgrave brought to this reading. In a short, moving article distributed to accompany the performance, he writes, with the same sort of impassioned commitment that took him into radical politics as well as the acting profession: ‘Visiting De Profundis a hundred years later is like gazing at the Elgin marbles. One is at one and the same time awestruck by their beauty and troubled by the collective shame of England’s cultural vandalism. An English court and English prisons silenced a great Irish heretic almost as effectively as English crusaders under Simon de Montfort had cut out the tongues of the Cathars in Minerve seven centuries ago.’

They could not have done so, of course, without Wilde’s own misguided passion – his weakness for the hateful, self-centred and utterly selfish Bosie, who first pushed him into taking the libel action that led to his arrest and imprisonment and then persuaded him, when he still had the chance to withdraw the action and flee, that to do so would somehow be a betrayal of his love for Bosie.

There is a line in De Profundis in which Wilde writes that ‘the gods are strange, and punish us for what is good and humane in us as much as for what is evil and perverse’. A contributing factor to Redgrave’s heart attack in June 2005 was the stress induced by his (good and humane) concern over the treatment of the traveller community. ‘He got so angry when he was talking because he had heard people telling lies about us,’ said Kathleen McCarthy, from the local travellers’ site, who accompanied him to the hospital.

‘We are all feeling it. He is like a member of our family. He is such a nice man. If he goes we will all grieve for him like one of our own,’ she told the Independent at the time. I do hope that’s not for a long time yet.


john g said...

Does Corin Redgrave have anything to do with the Socialist Equality, otherwise known as the British section of the international committee of the 4th International which is standing Chris Talbot as its candidate in the Haltemprice and Howden by-election and is a split off from the Redgraves former party, the Workers Revolutionary Party?

Peace and Progress said...