Prisoner C33 review – Trevor Nunn directs a wretched, wonderful Wilde

Watching plays on television does require a certain mindset. Appearing as part of BBC Four’s Sunday Night Performance strand, Prisoner C33 is a brand new one-man play about Oscar Wilde’s time in Reading Gaol. It’s written by Stuart Paterson, directed by Trevor Nunn, and stars a very good Toby Stephens as Wilde, playing two very different versions of the writer in conversation with each other. If you are in the mood for an hour of one man talking to himself about the great misfortunes of his life, in a dim, candlelit cell, while the perforated eardrum that would contribute to his death causes him great pain, then this is a poetic and well-crafted play that I imagine would be even more electric on stage.

It would truly be a crime if this famous wit were not allowed a glimmer of comedy in his musings

That hour doesn’t stretch patience or outstay its welcome. It begins with an animalistic moan, deep in the bowels of the Victorian prison, its candles and iron gates lending this a gothic chill. The moan is not coming from Wilde, yet, but from a disturbed man a few cells down, whose mutterings earn him an off-screen beating from a guard. This is 1895, and Wilde is in prison for gross indecency after the details of his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, his beloved Bosie, became public knowledge. He would emerge from his sentence having written De Profundis and with the material for The Ballad of Reading Gaol, but C33 is more concerned with what Wilde had to endure, and the ultimate cost of that.

Stephens plays him as a wretched, tortured soul brought to the depths of despair by his predicament. He’s cold, hungry, sick, dirty – and bored. “I can bear anything except losing my mind,” he says, as if the prospect is imminent. Perhaps it was. Most of the drama concentrates on this wretched version of Wilde, a man who can only refer to himself by his prisoner number, in conversation with his younger self – a witty, elegant man, dressed in immaculate velvet, with rouged cheeks, who is urging his counterpart to strive for survival. “I say, remember yourself for who you are. A great and exceptional man,” says the young Oscar to the prison Oscar, who refers to his surroundings as “this tomb for those who are not yet dead”.

Nunn directs with utter sparseness, as if for a stage production, and, clearly, this is about the dialogue and the performance (or should that be performances?). Wilde debates grand subjects with himself. He rails against England and “sound English common sense” and the English education system. He talks of morality and art and faith and God. Is art useless? Is he ashamed of the success of The Importance of Being Earnest, a play he wrote in haste for money, that the young Oscar says will be performed for the rest of time? Wilde’s ego and snobbery come and go. He is ashamed of his materialism, yet finds solace in imagining rich fabrics and good French soap.

There is much to say about love, too, from the betrayal of “sweet Bosie” to his adoration of his wife and children, though we know that he would never see them again. He wonders if his ability to see “all the beauty in the world”, in men and in women, makes him a superior man. It would truly be a crime if this famous wit were not allowed a glimmer of comedy in his musings, and among the trauma and the horrors, there are plenty of moments of sly humour. If his sexuality is superior, should he expect an honour from the Queen? “Well, certainly a tax rebate, at the very least,” he quips.

Related: Sworn enemies: the real story of Old Bailey clash that ruined Oscar Wilde

It is not an easy watch, and I mean that quite literally. The conditions of a prison in 1895 were grim, and the idea that his cell “lacks a woman’s touch” is laughable; no woman could improve on that filthy, freezing cesspit. It is dark and gloomy (if this were BBC One prime time, there would be issues raised by the viewers who complain about mumbling), its protagonists looking for light in the shadows, and there is a piercing, high-pitched noise every time Wilde repeats his refrain of “If it was not for my ear …”

But Stephens is remarkable, and gives it his all as both the wreck of a man who would live only for another four years, and as the suave, younger Wilde, exhorting his older, ruined counterpart to live. A man imprisoned for gay sex might be a relic of the past in this country, but it makes a pitch for contemporary relevance in other ways, too. “We cannot keep on living like this, governed by fools who think only of wealth and of war and the size of their estates,” Wilde rages, adding a touch of timelessness to this sorry, sad tale.