De Profundis must be one of the most powerful letters in English literature and each year, it appears, in one form or another at almost every Edinburgh Festival.
This year it was Simon Callow in a highly praised performance at the Assembly rooms on George Street. He attracts, as one would expect for such a distinguished figure in the world of the theatre, large appreciative audiences.
I last saw De Profundis at the Edinburgh Fringe some four years ago, performed, on that occasion, in a much smaller theate, by Gerard Logan and I must say that it was a superior performance to that of Callow.
De Profundis is a very intimate letter and resonates its power when the theatre is smaller and the audience not so vast as that that gathers in the great music hall theatre on George Street. That, I think, must have contributed to my preference for Logan’s performance.
But there is more. Callow performs the prose in anger, accusatory anger, for it is an angry letter, whereas Logan’s performance was one of despair and regret. He did not shout his accusations against Bosie and I think, by doing so he caught the passion of it better.
The setting of such performances in Edinburgh, indeed, for must shows in Edinburgh, including De Profundis is mostly black curtains and almost nothing on the stage. Callow had a wooden chair, rather a big chair. The performance is set in prison but it did not look like a prison chair, nor feel like a prison chair. It looked too comfortable for a prison, like an IKEA chair rather than a prison stool. For most of Ca[low’s performance he was seated in the chair, sitting bolt upright angrily proclaiming his accusations against Bosie. By comparison with Logan it was rather stilted, for Logan was at a desk and it looked much more like a piece of prison furniture; and he was standing, with the “letter” itself in his hands, and he moved with the rhythm of the despair in the letter and it produced a more convincing performance.
Wilde was 43 years old when he wrote De Profundis. He was a broken dandy. Callow is now 70 years old. It is terrible to be so ageist but I think Logan rather carried it off a little more successfully.
For both men, the simple act of committing to memory, not just a few lines but the entire 50,000 word text of the long, powerful prose as it meanders over the minutiae of the Bosie/Wilde relationship, at times petulant, full of self pity, seething with humiliation and regret, anger and love, is quite astonishing.
Callow’s performance brought forward prolonged and deserved applause. Logan’s, as I recall, brought us to our feet.