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'De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail' The World Premiere

Now onstage at the Young Centre, 50 Tank House, Distillery District. Produced by Soulpepper

Credit: Dahlia Katz. Pictured: Damien Atkins as Oscar Wilde

Joe Szekeres

‘Damien Atkins delivers a thrilling performance.’

This world premiere is billed as a musical fantasy based on author/playwright Oscar Wilde's letter to his love, Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde was incarcerated for two years at Reading Gaol, hard labour in prison for the crime of gross indecency with Bosie (Alfred Douglas).

The longer letter, ' De Profundis’ (From the Depths), was written a page daily over the last three months of Wilde’s imprisonment. Each page was collected at the end of each day and handed over to Wilde on his release from prison. The longer letter detailed Wilde's loneliness of life in prison. To combat this feeling, he also wrote his philosophy on art, love and devotion to Bosie, and the excess and pleasure of life experienced outside the jail.

The latter part of the letter details Wilde’s understanding of religion. More about this shortly.

Robbie Ross (Wilde’s best friend) had edited sections of the letter that pertained to the relationship between the author and Bosie. The entire letter was released for publication in 1960.

Damien Atkins plays Oscar Wilde, Colton Curtis plays Lord Alfred Douglas, and Jonathan Corkal-Astorga plays Robbie in Soulpepper’s production.

Lorenzo Savoini's designs are always distinct. His work in set and lights is once again creative in this production. The moveable walls of the intimate Michael Young Theatre shift back and forth from the jail cell to other events in Wilde’s mind as he writes. The claustrophobic cell remains stark and lifeless, beautifully lit by the shadows. The walls shift, and the space increases. When this occurs, it’s as if fresh air enters Wilde’s mind, even for an allotted time frame. Ming Wong’s costumes are stylishly fashionable tuxedos. Wilde’s prison outfit looked like comfortable pajamas from where I was sitting. Olivia Wheeler’s Sound and Frank Donato’s Projection Designs excel in underscoring heightened dramatic moments in Wilde’s mind.

I profiled Adaptor and Director Gregory Prest before show opening and discussed how ‘De Profundis’ is unlike most theatre shows in Toronto. Why? Because it’s a letter. A play's traditional linear or narrative format does not drive this production. Instead, ‘De Profundis’ remains emotionally driven with the creative team’s selection of dramatized material that is sometimes abstract in nature. Audience experience in reaction to the letter is of extreme importance.

Bottom line? Does this reading of a letter work in front of an audience?

It does.

At times, the production is incredibly moving within Prest's imaginative, assured hands as Adaptor/Director, Mike Ross as Composer, Music Director, Arranger and Orchestrator, and Sarah Wilson as Lyricist. This Creative Team valiantly captures the angst, the romance, the passion, and the eventual downfall of two people caught doing something for which they have no intention to apologize. Corkal-Astorga effectively underscores Mike Ross’s compositions at the piano to highlight the emotional impact, especially in those moments between Bosie and Wilde. Sarah Wilson peppers several smart lyrics with clever wording and precise intonation. The moment when Wilde sings what we think is going to be an Irish ballad and then quickly veers off is amusing.

The opening moments of the play supply the right amount of humour to pique the audience's interest. As Oscar’s best friend, Corkal-Astorga has the formidable task of grabbing attention and making us want to learn about Wilde. Corkal-Astorga gives a solid performance as Robbie throughout the production, but there are moments when I couldn’t hear him as I sat on the other side of the auditorium. The audience learns a bit about the iconic author from Robbie until Damien Atkins, as Oscar, appears behind a door in a dressing gown. Wilde asks his friend what he’s doing. When Robbie announces he’s trying to make the audience understand more about Oscar, Damien announces pompously to get another audience.

Much appreciated humour to open the show.

Mind you, the production does not make Wilde and Bosie heroic by any means. These men may appear elegant in their demeanour, but they can be mean-spirited and duplicitous, and their ensuing dialogue remains pointed and sharp.

Colton Curtis plays a dignified Bosie but also infuses a mean and nasty spirit within, especially when the audience learns why Wilde is thrown into jail. Curtis suggestively uses his eyes to convey a lot. Movement Director Indrit Kasapi proudly showcases Curtis’s artistic talent as a dancer. The specific choreographed ballet is stunning to witness.

Prest says Damien Atkins was born to play Oscar Wilde.

I couldn’t agree more.

Atkins delivers a thrilling performance as the title character. Not once does he try to look or even mimic how Wilde might have sounded. His Oscar is sometimes campy, a tad enigmatic, boyishly charming, and somewhat petulant. Sounds a bit like true human nature to me.

The Christian references near the show's end make this understanding of Oscar Wilde’s ‘De Profundis’ unique for me. From what I recall, during my undergraduate years studying English language and literature, Oscar Wilde converted to Catholicism on his deathbed in Paris.

I wanted to make sure I had this understanding correct since undergraduate studies occurred over 40 some years ago. The Vatican Official Newspaper, ‘L’Osservatore Romano, recounted that "[Wilde] not just a non-conformist who loved to shock the conservative society of Victorian England," …"[he was also] a man who behind a mask of amorality asked himself what was just and what was mistaken, what was true and what was false." (

Atkins exactly accomplishes this.

Near the end of ‘De Profundis,’ Oscar considers the times he may have made mistakes in his relationship with Bosie. Things might have been handled differently. In doing so, he introduces this important concept about what is truth and what is false. It’s true; there is no need for Oscar (and Damien) to apologize justly for who they are, nor should they from a 21st-century perspective. Oscar also didn’t feel the need to apologize for who he was in the 19th century.

In our woke twenty-first-century world, this pull between truth and false continues to wreak havoc. Those who understand an objective truth and an objective false appear at peace and will not cater to the whims of those who try to change to suit a particular narrative.

It’s reassuring that this ‘De Profundis’ and its reading do not become Christian bashing.

And Another Thing: Soulpepper bills this world premiere as ‘The Greatest Love Letter Ever Written.’ At first glance, I wasn’t sure if this statement was a fair analysis of the piece. Further consideration leads me to believe that it’s the beginning of looking at understanding even more what objective truth and falsehood are.

For that reason, ‘De Profundis’ is an important production to see. Hopefully, there will be some talkbacks for audience members.

Running time: approximately 100 minutes with no interval.

The production runs until February 23 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in the Distillery District, 50 Tank House Lane. For tickets: or call 416-866-8666. To learn more about Soulpepper:

Adapted by Gregory Prest. Original Music & Lyrics by Mike Ross and Sarah Wilson
Adaptor/Director: Gregory Prest
Composer, Music Director, Arranger & Orchestrator: Mike Ross
Lyricist: Sarah Wilson
Set and Lighting Design: Lorenzo Savoini
Costume Design: Ming Wong
Sound Designer: Olivia Wheeler
Projections Designer: Frank Donato
Movement Director: Indrit Kasapi
Stage Manager: Tamara Protic

Performers: Damien Atkins, Jonathan Corkal-Astorga, Colton Curtis

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