OAchieving parts on TV takes a certain mindset. Appearing as part of BBC Four’s Sunday Night Performance strand, Prisoner C33 is a brand new solo piece about Oscar Wilde’s time at Reading Gaol. It’s written by Stuart Paterson, directed by Trevor Nunn, and stars a very good Toby Stephens as Wilde, playing two very different versions of the talking writer. If you are in the mood for an hour to see a man talk to himself about the great misfortunes of his life, in a dark, candlelit cell, while the perforated eardrum that would contribute to his death causes him great pain, then it’s a poetic narrative and a well-crafted game that I imagine would be even more electric on stage.
This hour does not stretch patience or overstay its welcome. It begins with an animal whimper, deep within the bowels of the Victorian prison, its candles and iron doors giving it a gothic thrill. The moan doesn’t come from Wilde yet, but from a disturbed man a few cells down, whose mumblings get him beaten off-screen by a guard. The year is 1895 and Wilde is in prison for gross indecency after details of his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, his beloved Bosie, became public knowledge. He would go off-sentence after writing De Profundis and with material from The Ballad of Reading Gaol, but C33 is more concerned with what Wilde had to endure, and the ultimate cost of it.
Stephens plays him as a miserable, tortured soul brought to the depths of despair by his predicament. He’s cold, hungry, sick, dirty – and bored. “I can take anything but lose my mind,” he says, as if the prospect were imminent. Maybe it was. Most of the drama focuses on this miserable version of Wilde, a man who can only refer to himself by his prisoner number, in conversation with his younger self – a witty, elegant man, dressed in immaculate velvet, with red cheeks, who urges his counterpart to fight for his survival. “I say, remember who you are. A great and exceptional man”, confides the young Oscar to the prison Oscar, who describes his entourage as “this tomb for those who are not yet dead”.
Nunn directs with utter parsimony, like directing, and, clearly, it’s about dialogue and performance (or should it be about performance?). Wilde debates big topics with himself. He rebels against England and “English common sense” and the English educational system. It talks about morality, art, faith and God. Is art useless? Is he ashamed of the success of The Importance of Being Earnest, a play he hastily wrote for money, and which the young Oscar winner says will be performed for the rest of time? Wilde’s ego and snobbery come and go. He is ashamed of his materialism, but finds comfort in imagining rich fabrics and good French soap.
There’s a lot to be said for love, too, from “sweet Bosie’s” betrayal to his adoration of his wife and children, though we know he’ll never see them again. He wonders if his ability to see “all the beauty in the world,” in men and women, makes him a superior man. It would truly be a crime if this famous spirit weren’t allowed a glimmer of comedy in his musings, and among the trauma and horror there are plenty of sly humorous moments. If his sexuality is superior, should he expect an honor from the Queen? “Well, definitely a tax refund, at the very least,” he jokes.
It’s not an easy watch, and I mean that literally. Prison conditions in 1895 were grim, and the idea that his cell “lacks a feminine touch” is laughable; no woman could improve this filthy, freezing cesspool. It’s dark and dark (if it was prime time on BBC One viewers would complain of mumbling), its protagonists searching for light in the shadows, and there’s a piercing, high-pitched noise every time Wilde repeats his refrain of “If it wasn’t for my ear…”
But Stephens is remarkable and gives his all both as the wreckage of a man who would live only four more years, and as the suave, young Wilde, urging his older, ruined counterpart to live. A man imprisoned for gay sex may be a relic of the past in this country, but it also makes a case for contemporary relevance in other ways. “We can’t go on living like this, ruled by fools who think only of wealth and war and the size of their estates,” Wilde rages, adding a touch of timelessness to this story. sorry and sad.