What was it like to be Oscar Wilde’s wife? He’s one of history’s most celebrated gay men, so you might be surprised at the question. But he was married – for fourteen years – to an independently-minded woman named Constance Lloyd; and this one-woman play seeks to redress the balance, telling the tale of their lives together entirely through Constance’s eyes. Through a fictionalised series of letters to her brother Otho, we follow the couple’s romance, parenthood, and ultimate parting – and while Oscar’s electric personality is never present, it’s always felt.
Constance’s story is – like all real stories – a nuanced one, and actor-playwright Lexi Wolfe wisely refrains from any too-obvious conclusions. The Constance we meet is a liberated woman, but still a product of her time: she campaigns for the right to wear comfortable dress, yet muses that she wouldn’t want to outstrip her husband. Most interestingly, Wolfe’s script suggests that Constance and Oscar initially enjoyed a kind of symbiosis, where his name granted her opportunities she could previously only have dreamed of and she offered an unseen hand to guide his career.
But we know, of course, that Oscar’s true affections lie elsewhere – and it’s in the sad decline of their marriage that the script’s episodic structure comes most into its own. As we dip in and out of her story, hearing letters penned months or years apart, we see poignant snapshots of a relationship breaking down: fraying imperceptibly at first, then degenerating into coldness, cruelty and betrayal. There’s a nicely-worked sense of portent, and the most famous and fateful moment – Oscar’s failed claim for libel – happens with clever quietness between scenes. Yet Wolfe finds room for some occasional black humour too, illustrating both Constance’s sharp wit and her irrepressible inner fire.
As an actor, Wolfe excels as Constance, capturing a vast range of emotion from the excitement of first love to the anger and distress of a scandal breaking around her. Her subtle self-direction contributes too, providing enough movement and variety to hold our interest through a complex and wordy script. The flaws I can find are minor ones, and stand out only in comparison to the quality of what surrounds them: some slow scene transitions sap a little of the mood, and a couple of props merit a little more care (notably a purported early-twentieth-century letter which is blatantly a modern printout on a sheet of A4).
The opening may be a little rushed – throwing too many facts and names your way before you’ve had a chance to settle in – but the ending is judged to perfection, wrapping up Constance’s story with haunting understatement and revealing the true significance of the play’s name. Overall then, this is a beautifully-balanced and very accessible piece of theatre, filled both with historical detail and with human frailties that we recognise from the present day. Wilde aficionados will be drawn to it – but make no mistake, it’s compelling viewing for anyone.