Rupert Everett has hailed the works of Oscar Wilde, who was imprisoned for homosexual acts, as resonant in a world where some people are still punished for being gay.
The actor, who has just finished filming his directorial debut The Happy Prince chronicling the final years of Wilde’s life, spoke of the emotion he felt as he stood in front of the playwright’s cell door to give a reading of his final poem.
Wilde wrote The Ballad Of Reading Gaol after leaving the prison, where he spent two years in near-solitude after being convicted of gross indecency with men, a criminal offence in Britain in the late 19th century.
Rupert, who is gay, said it was “extraordinary” to give the reading from the former prison chapel.
He said: “It’s amazing to be here. When you’re trying to do a performance I think you just have to concentrate on doing the performance. The end is, I felt, very emotional but you know it’s a practical job trying to read a very long poem so you have to just keep your energy up really.”
He described Wilde’s life and experience as a catalyst for the modern-day LGBT movement. He said: “I think he is very relevant, particularly in countries like America where the only politics that really still exists are politics like LGBT politics, and really Wilde is the beginning of that journey.
“Certainly I think his death was one of the great punctuation points between the 19th century and the 20th century, and the whole sum of his life raised one of the big debates that is still being debated now.
“In many parts of the world, homosexuality is still a capital offence so we’re now in a global village where some people are put to death for being gay. So I think he is just as resonant, if not more resonant with the years.”
Wilde, who wrote of the devastating effect his time in prison had on him, could be one of thousands of gay and bisexual people convicted of acts no longer considered criminal to be pardoned under a new ruling which has been described as righting a historic wrong.
After his death, witness statements, which had been prepared for the writer’s libel case, emerged suggesting he may have had liaisons with under-age boys. He was never convicted of such an offence and he is understood to be eligible for a pardon.
Rupert dismissed any such suggestion as “fantasy” and, despite having previously welcomed pardons as something of a victory, described the idea as “pathetic”.
He said: “I think to be pardoned is pathetic. It’s just society trying to ease its own sense of guilt. I think he should either be remunerated – his family – or apologised to. But pardoned? There was no offence in the first place.”
Rupert’s performance brought to a close an exhibition by Artangel, during which Reading prison, having closed in 2013, was opened to the public for the first time.