Reading Prison, Berkshire (****)
We are what we are today thanks to the saints and martyrs of which Oscar Wilde must surely count as one. Searching the soul is what prison allows/forces/impels from some and Oscar with his talent and genius proceeded to turn his personal suffering into a searing work of art during his incarceration in Reading Gaol.
His was an over-riding sense of victimhood but also within the shuddering self pity the most profound sense of moral integrity. Unflinchingly, he pushed himself to an analysis of himself and his situation unsparingly and no less his lover and nemesis, Lord Alfred Douglas – a young man who really didn’t deserve the love of the most brilliant wordsmith of his age. But isn’t that so often, the way…
This much and much more became clear during the four and a half hour reading of the full text of Oscar’s magnificent letter to `Bosie’, De Profundis, part of Artangel’s latest extraordinary `event/installation’, Inside, held in Reading Prison.
Magnificent, there is no other word for De Profundis, so intense, so complex, so overarching the scope of Oscar’s writing.
Sitting in the prison’s chapel, listening, sometimes half-hearing Maxine Peake in the hush of the high-vaulted ceilinged room, the audience seated on three sides, dominated behind Peake by the original wooden door to Oscar’s cell – C.3.3 – it felt at once a privilege and in part a test.
For some, it was perhaps a pilgrimage; for others a short interlude in their visit to Artangel’s transformation of the prison into an art installation – a collection of commissions by some of today’s finest writers and artists and readings by leading actors.
Outside the chapel, the cells, cleansed, washed of the grime and degradation that must surely have seeped into the souls of the many men, women and children contained within George Gilbert Scott’s cruciform institution for 169 years before its closure in 2013, holds letters on separation, obsession, confinement, memory and much more.
I wish I’d had more time to investigate letters by Gillian Slovo, Deborah Levy, Danny Morrison, work by Nan Goldin and others.
But apart from seeing the stunning sculptures of Robert Gober – particularly Treasure Chest, his dissection of a woman’s body, exposing the inside and outer layers, rippled by water – it was Oscar taking my thoughts and who again grabbed my heart with the sight of his original manuscript on display with its tiny writing and scrawl of his pen, his pain and loss and his compassion for others (he wrote a passionate letter condemning the harsh treatment of children in prison).
Maxine Peake was the heroic reader who recited the letter yesterday, unbroken for its four and a half hours duration.
As brave an undertaking as any she must have undergone in her career, stumbling occasionally to make sense of the complexity of the mind before her as it outlined in meticulous detail, love, its ruin, art and its application in the figure of Christ, only ultimately was she engulfed as she came to Oscar’s transcendent epiphany of acceptance and humility, finally finding solace and peace in the arms of benign Nature.
Artangel’s Inside continues to Dec 4. Don’t miss. A once in a lifetime, historical opportunity to hear and experience De Profundis, in situ, before the Gaol is sold off, no doubt to make way for another shopping mall…
See also link to article in Apollo magazine by James Lingwood, co-director Artangel on how Artists and Writers in Reading Prison came about. https://www.apollo-magazine.com/artangels-ambitious-new-project-at-reading-prison-is-inspired-by-oscar-wilde/
Presented by Artsangel
Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison runs to Dec 4, 2016
Review first published on this website, Oct 24, 2016