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A Florentine Tragedy

by on 4 July 2020

What Money Cannot Buy

 A Florentine Tragedy

by Oscar Wilde

Teddington Theatre Club, zoomed until 28th June, then on-line on YouTube

Review by Quentin Weiver

During that brief interlude in Oscar Wilde’s life when his mind was preoccupied with the gathering storm clouds of criminal charges, his prolific writing output was directed away for his trademark acerbity towards more reflective subject-matter.  A few months in 1894 when the impending prison sentence was almost inevitable, saw the creation of La Sainte Courtisane, his masterpiece Salome, and the languorous poem The Sphinx.  As another quirk that year he experimented with early seventeenth century styles and started a blank verse drama, A Florentine Tragedy, whose style smacks of Shakespeare but whose plot is scarily Jacobean.

One might speculate that Wilde may have been harking back to a period in history when his precarious predicament would not have been a matter for the courts of law, for during and after his incarceration in Reading Gaol for gross indecency in 1895-97 he never completed the work.  It remained unfinished at his early death from syphilic meningitis in November 1900, but the extant fragment of the manuscript was published in 1908.

Teddington Theatre Club’s marathon Wilde Weekend is a continuous reading of Wilde’s full canon.  Inevitably in such an epic undertaking, works that are considered minor are relegated to the least popular times.  When the reading takes over twenty-five hours, this means the middle of the night.  This is a huge shame, as this is an interesting piece, with some insight into Wilde’s state of mind at the time.   Moreover, director Clare Cooper and her indefatigable team have rescued Wilde’s orphan and put some colour back in its cheeks with an engaging presentation that turns a cameo into pearl.

FlorTrdy Arno

However, this is not unadulterated Wilde, as the fragment is prefaced by an opening by the Edwardian poet Thomas Sturge Moore.  Moore sets the scene of a philandering nobleman Guido Bardi, who is enjoying a dalliance with Bianca, the wife of a wealthy textile merchant, Simone.  This is sixteenth century Florence, where this sort of thing goes on.  We opening in typical Edwardian parlour-play manner with the maid giving the back story, with the added twist that the maid, Maria, has set up the tryst.  Enter said Lord, offering 100,000 crowns for what he wants, but it is not silver damask.  Bianca of course knows what Prince Guido wants and is only too willing to provide it.   One wonders, though, if this is the direction in which Wilde had set out the play.  Maybe Wilde had in mind a more nuanced part in the plot for Bianca.

Nevertheless, Moore’s opening “presentation” as he called it, which takes up a third of the three-quarter hour long play, is skilfully accurate in its sumptuous poetry to the style of Wilde.  He even picks up Wilde’s obsession with the moon, which we also see in Salome.  “White Bianca, lovely as the moon” opines the slick Guido.

FlorinAllenLucy Allan’s Maria is earnest and anxious to please, but comes across as quite astute.  The sauciness peeps out from under the maid’s subservience, and the brassiness just glints rather than glares.   Maria is a character only present in Moore’s presentation, as is the seductive foreplay (so to speak) of Prince Guido.

FlorTrdyGhirlanodo

Wilde’s fragment opens with the return of Simone, Bianca’s husband.   Simone at first takes Guido as “some friend, some kinsman doubtless”, but then discovers his unexpected visitor is not only a noble, but “the son of that great Lord of Florence”, a Prince.  At first he assumes merchant mode, expecting a lucrative sale, but his suspicions are roused by the Prince’s extravagant praises of Simone’s wife.  Bianca is far from unintelligent, but perhaps over-truthful and, in truth, Simone’s reference to “my honest wife, most honest if uncomely to the eye” does little to help things, but he begins to smell a rat.  When it becomes clearer what Guido’s proffered lavish over-payments are to pay for, Simone hints, “I have heard also of husbands that wear horns, and wear them bravely”.   Guido’s more explicit insistence, and Bianca’s ambiguous manoeuvring pushes Simone too far, and things take a very nasty turn indeed.

FlorinMcDowDeb McDowell conveys this ambiguity in Bianca with some finesse and we see that her Bianca is overly flattered by the advances of a Prince, and over conciliatory with her husband.  McDowell’s half-smiles and half-lifted eyebrows revel a Bianca revelling in the balance that she holds.

FlorinHalfordCharles Halford gives us a Simone who is initially matter of fact and a bit bluff.  He slowly (perhaps a little too slowly) gets up steam towards the violent end.  Here is a Simone who will not wear the horns of the cuckold.  What is a pity is that we never see Halford’s eyes: engaging with the lens on Zoom approximates to engaging with the other protagonists.

FlorinHillThe show really belongs to Peter Hill as the silver-tongued seducer Guido Bardi.  Hill is clearly relishing the flowery words of the unctuous prince.  Through his flattering lines, we catch a glimpse of the true dissimulating nature of Guido.  The import of “love is consent” is not lost with Hill, neither are the plenty other opportunities to see beneath his character’s skin.

The soaring poetry of and especially the sex and violence (with only the latter fulfilled) in this fragment opens itself up to be the inspiration for an opera.  And indeed, at least three have come to fruition by various composers, the best know of whom is Sergei Prokofiev.  A Florentine Tragedy was the seed that germinated as his opera Maddalena.

The play certainly screams out for a bigger stage that that tendered by the Zoom-YouTube screen.   However, it does have problems.  The fatally violent denouement takes place in the dark, which could have been turned to advantage in this production by simply blacking the screens and relying on Wilde’s text.  The closing dialogue of Bianca and Simone, “Why did you not tell me you were so strong?” … “Why did you not tell me you were beautiful?” suddenly slams the psyche of each in reverse.  Perhaps Wilde put this in as a note to himself on how he was intending to develop the plot.

Cooper’s rehearsed reading though makes good use of the juicy scraps of the play that Wilde has left us.  She has a great talent for poetic works and this is a prime example.  (One small niggle though, please could the cast pronounce the last -e of Simone as a separate syllable to keep the metre.)  What she now needs is a stage, a live audience and physical movement to give Wilde’s orphan a future it deserves.

Quentin Weiver, June 2020

Photography by Bobbie Turtur, Ghirlandaio Bigordi and Teddington Theatre Club

A Florentine Tragedy may be seen on YouTube as part of Wilde Weekend

 

 

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