Review: De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail

by Lynn on February 11, 2024

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ont. Presented by Soulpepper. Plays until Feb. 18, 2024.

Adapted and directed by Gregory Prest

Based in part on De Profundis by Oscar Wilde

Original music and lyrics by Mike Ross and Sarah Wilson

Set and lighting by Lorenzo Savoini

Costumes by Ming Wong

Sound by Olivia Wheeler

Projection design by Frank Donato

Cast: Damien Atkins

Jonathan Corkal-Astorga

Colton Curtis

Damien Atkins gives a towering performance as Oscar Wilde in De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail, but the piece is a jumble of styles, tone and songs and is so overproduced, that the full power of the original letter is diluted. A disappointment.

The Story. From the production website: De Profundis: Oscar Wilde in Jail is a musical fantasy based on the letter Oscar Wilde wrote while incarcerated for two years at Reading Gaol, to his love Lord Alfred Douglas. The letter was written a page a day over a period of three months, collected at the end of each day, and handed over to Wilde on his release from prison. 

In 1895, Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labor in prison for gross indecency for his relationship with Lord Alfred (Bosie) Douglas. He wrote the long letter entitled “De Profundis” in Reading Gaol (Jail) in the last three months of his sentence, beginning in March 1897. The letter was written to “Bosie” and was a bitter indictment of Lord Alfred Douglas’ behaviour towards Oscar Wilde over the time they were together. The letter described prison life, loneliness, Wilde’s life lived for excess and pleasure, his love and devotion to “Bosie,” his philosophy on life, art, living, and later in the letter, religion.

The full version of the letter (unabridged) was only fully released for publication in 1960. Before that time Wilde’s literary executor, Robert (Robbie) Ross heavily edited portions of it pertaining to Bosie.

The Production. Adaptor/director Gregor Prest writes in his program note his respect for Oscar Wilde’s work “De Profundis” (Latin for: ‘from the depths’). Prest talks about love when it seems impossible as one idea he wanted to explore. The program note from the Artistic Leadership of Soulpepper: Gideon Arthurs (Executive Director) and Weyni Mengesha (Artistic Director) refer to “Wilde’s letters are woven through actual testimony from his trial for ‘gross indecency’, songs and epigrams to create something truly unique.” This suggests that other sources than the letter are incorporated into this production.

Unique it is. Successful is another matter.

Designer, Lorenzo Savoini creates a sense of elegance immediately when one enters the theatre and sees a huge ornately framed painting of a lush arrangement of flowers hung across the stage. One immediately thinks of Oscar Wilde’s world of beauty.

An upright piano is at the side of the theatre. A man in costume and a large hat announces he will offer background about Oscar Wilde and begins to wax poetically about the man. We hear a groan of “Oh God” behind the curtain. The man continues to speak and again, the voice behind the curtain calls out “Robbie”, a side door opens and Oscar Wilde (Damien Atkins) appears in a dressing gown asking Robbie (Robert Ross, Oscar Wilde’s close friend) what he is doing.

Robbie says that he is giving a deeper context to the audience about who Oscar Wilde is. Wilde looks at the audience and tells him to get another audience and disappears behind the door. Lots of laughter.

And so, with this light-bantering exchange adaptor Gregory Prest has upstaged the seriousness of the show before it even begins. And he begins on a disingenuous note as well. We don’t need a deeper context about Oscar Wilde, and certainly not from a character we don’t know.  We already know who Oscar Wilde is. That’s why we are in the room, and of course to see the wondrous Damien Atkins play Oscar Wilde. Interestingly, we are given no information about Robbie from Wilde. In fact, Robert Ross was Wilde’s one-time lover and after that a loyal, true friend who was a support when Wilde was in jail and when he was released.

The production proper begins with pings of composer Mike Ross’s electronic music to set a tone, I imagine. The music will vary from electronic to contemporary etc. The framed painting disappears, replaced by the stark gloom and claustrophobia of Wilde’s prison cell. There is an uneven concrete wall at the back and sides, a bucket as a toilet is in a corner, a narrow wood bench as his bed is against the wall and utensils for eating are under the bench. It beautifully establishes the oppressiveness of Wilde’s cell. He spent 23/24 hours there in solitary confinement.

Wilde (Damien Atkins) stands barefoot in the gloomy light (illumination also by Lorenzo Savoini) in a crème-coloured prison uniform of top and pants that has some kind of design on it (trees? Can’t tell). Damien Atkins as Oscar Wilde stands facing the audience; serious, haunted, wounded. He begins the letter, “Dear Bosie….” Atkins is initially measured in his pacing. His voice is deep and mellifluous. But then the speed ramps up as Wilde recalls the hurts, betrayals and slights that Wilde endured because of Bosie. Atkins then goes into warp speed as a torrent of elegant invective and anger pours out of him. It is hard to keep up with it all, he is speaking so fast. The speech illuminates the mind of a man who is perceptive, intuitive, psychologically astute about how manipulative and shallow Bosie is and aware of his effect on Wilde. But then he rages about why Bosie has not written to him or come to see him. No matter how knowing Wilde is, he’s consumed by his love for the morally bankrupt, Bosie.  

I wonder who that speech is for? I know it’s a letter for Bosie, but it’s being verbalized in a theatre where “life is lived on purpose.” Is it for Bosie? If so, it’s too fast to make sound points with the man you want to slam with points. Is it for the audience? Then ditto, slow down. At its simplest level it’s the speech of a man who has probably said and resaid it to himself, polishing and honing it for full force for all of his prison sentence. Fine, it should be said slower for full effect. (not glacial, but so that we can hold on to the points and appreciate their ‘smack’ value).

At times Damien Atkins as Oscar Wilde sings songs of loss, regret, anger etc. composed by Mike Ross with lyrics by Sarah Wilson. I don’t see why the songs are needed or what they offer besides the original letters. The show is based on one of the greatest letters of heartache, despair and perception ever written. I don’t see what these songs offer aside from a weaker version of more of the same in the letters, never mind that Damien Atkins has a wonderful, powerful voice.

Then there are the fantasy dreams of Bosie (Colton Curtis). For this the side walls are pulled back, more space is created downstage of the cell as well and the claustrophobic cell disappears. The boyish Bosie, played by a graceful, manipulative Colton Curtis, does various dances that are balletic and seductive. He captures Bosie’s shallowness and beauty to a ‘t’. But again, so does the original letter. The inclusion of “Bosie” seems overkill. Indeed, while it’s obvious that Gregory Prest has a close relationship with the material and shows sensitive and bold attention to the material, I found the whole endeavor overproduced, masking the true power of a gifted actor alone on a stage, performing one of the most moving pieces of writing of a tortured soul.  

 Presented by Soulpepper Theatre.

Plays until February 18, 2024.

Running time: 100 minutes (no intermission)

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kent James February 11, 2024 at 12:27 pm

Hi Lynn:

You left with a lot of questions. Why so much production, why so fast, why music, why songs, why a prologue, why by a character we don’t know, why anything except Damien on a stage performing the letter.

These are good questions. They all have answers, and I’m sure we’d all love to hear them. Safe to say none of them has anything to do with “masking” power or “providing a weaker version of more of the same in the letters”, but that’s your opinion, and you know a lot about how it landed with you.

I assume the piece is meant to complement and amplify and investigate the text, which we can read or listen to, beautifully performed, elsewhere.

I found it original, and painful, and funny, and tremendously sad, and surprising in its variety (or jumble if you prefer) and bitter beauty. So not what I was expecting either, but I don’t share your disappointment.




2 Lynn February 11, 2024 at 12:30 pm

Thanks Kent. Always good to hear from you. We disagree, and that’s the beauty of theatre. Best, Lynn


3 Linda Thorson February 15, 2024 at 12:04 pm

My experience of DE PROFUNDIS: OSCAR WILDE IN JAIL surpassed anything I can remember seeing in Toronto for many years. I found it unique, completely entertaining, always surprising, emotionally profound, and brilliantly portrayed. Damien Atkins gives a sublime performance. The other cast member are excellent with wonderfully committed, beautifully executed movement and dancing by Colton Curtis. I sat in a full house where you could hear a pin drop, as well as spontaneous, appropriate laughter and ultimately quiet sobbing. Mike Ross and Sarah Wilson have performed a miracle of musical comment adding immeasurably to the play. Gregory Prest has adapted Wilde’s ‘letter’ with tremendous imagination, remarkable ingenuity and winning grace. The production is unmissable in my opinion. It closes Feb. 25!!


4 Linda Thorson February 15, 2024 at 12:12 pm

The production is UNMISSABLE. Damien Atkins is a king among actors. There is nothing he cannot do and he does it all in De Profundis. All kudos to Gregory Prest for bringing such imagination to Wilde’s ‘letter’, and to Mike Ross and Sarah Wilson for their astonishingly brilliant musical addition to the play. It is the best theatre I have seen in Toronto in years. I sat in a full house who were awed during the hour and half taking us from laughter to tears, surprising us at every turn. At the end some in the audience sat still their seats, I for one was emotionally knocked sideways. This is what theatre can be. Do yourself a favour and go. It closes Feb. 25th!!!!!