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Theater Review A profound ‘Profundis,’ courtesy of a Redgrave

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

DE PROFUNDIS, by Oscar Wilde. Performed by Corin Redgrave at Circle-in-the-Square, NYC. May 16.

Corin Redgrave, probably the least celebrated member of the acting clan of which he is the sole surviving male participant, gave the Actors’ Fund of America a shining gift recently when, on his evening off from the Tony-nominated work as the devious, villainous prison warden in Tennessee Williams’s "Not About Nightingales," he gave a single performance of his one-man Oscar Wilde show, "De Profundis."

The May 16 performance, lasting just one hour, fits flawlessly into the elaborate, haunting prison setting designed for the Williams play by Richard Hoover, since the text is, of course, a long letter which Wilde wrote to his young friend and lover Lord Alfred Douglas in the first three months of 1897, not long before he was released from prison.

"De Profundis," as performed by Redgrave, has been arranged by Wilde’s grandson, Merlin Holland, who comments on the letter in a brief program note as follows: "He gave the letter to Robbie Ross, the most loyal of all his friends, with instructions to copy it before sending it on to Alfred Douglas. Fortunately for us, he knew his young friend too well, or ‘De Profundis,’ as it has become known, would not have survived."

But it has survived, and it stands as one of the most eloquent communications ever exchanged between one human being and another. Neither Holland in his editing nor Redgrave in his performing spare Oscar Wilde the character flaws that are so clearly present in the lengthy letter. The playwright is revealed as disturbingly petulant and self-justifying, despite the fact that he cannot, in the end, come over anything but overwhelmingly sympathetic.

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In performance, Redgrave sits in a hard-backed chair, a sheaf of writing paper at his feet, and, hanging above his head, a rectangular patch of cloud-dotted blue sky, representing the sort of view Wilde may have had from his cell in Reading Gaol, the drab Victorian prison in which he was incarcerated for much of his two-year sentence.

The actor’s interpretation of "De Profundis," produced by Moving Theatre, a company founded by the actor and his sister, Vanessa Redgrave, among others, premiered at London’s Chelsea Centre on November 9, 1997, and has been performed since then at the Royal National Theatre, the Birmingham Repertory, and, only a few weeks ago, at the Alley Theatre in Houston, Texas, the first American venue to have hosted "Not About Nightingales."

Deftly using the gentlest of educated Dublin accents, Corin Redgrave’s interpretation of the sad final days of the great Irish writer is so revelatory, so moving and so eloquent in its simplicity that it has to rank with the finest work the actor has done over the course of a long and honorable career.

The pity, and its a considerable one, is that "De Profundis," as performed by Corin Redgrave, may not be given even the few further performances it so richly deserves. Even seen just once, the production stands as one of the real jewels in an unusually rich New York theater season.

Actor Redgrave is to be commended for having generated an event of such richness and resonance.

May 26-June 1, 1999

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