Entertainment & Arts

Reading Prison to celebrate former inmate Oscar Wilde

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Media captionOrganisers launched the event at a club in London visited by Oscar Wilde

HMP Reading is to open to the public for the first time for an arts project celebrating former inmate Oscar Wilde.

Actors Ralph Fiennes and Maxine Peake and singer Patti Smith are among those who will take part in readings at the former prison's chapel.

Wilde was a prisoner between 1895 and 1897 and wrote about his experience in his poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

The Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison project runs from 4 September to 30 October.

It will also include new works by artists such as Steve McQueen and Wolfgang Tillmans, which will be installed in the former prison's corridors, wings and cells.

'Longest and greatest'

Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years with hard labour for gross indecency after his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas was exposed in 1895.

After his release, he composed The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which was inspired by his time as a prisoner and reflected the brutality of the Victorian prison system.

Image copyright National Portrait Gallery
Image caption Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas photographed in May 1893

Every Sunday at midday, a different reader will recite De Profundis, a 100-page letter to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas written by Wilde in his cell in 1897, which organisers Artangel called "one of the longest and greatest letters in the English language".

De Profundis was not published until five years after Wilde's death in Paris in 1900.

The four-hour recitals will see many readers take part, including actors Neil Bartlett, Kathryn Hunter and Ben Whishaw, performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson, poet Lemn Sissay and author Colm Toibin.

'First celebrity'

Artangel's co-director Michael Morris said they would be "an intimate experience for a live audience that is free to come and go or sit rooted to the spot".

He said Wilde "feels very contemporary; he was not only, in many ways, the first celebrity, but in De Profundis, he was the first celebrity to take off a mask and speak from the inside".

An abridged version of De Profundis, recorded in Wilde's former cell, will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 11 September.

Visitors will also be able to listen to and read letters written especially for the event by the likes of artist Ai Weiwei and novelists Deborah Levy, Gillian Slovo and Jeanette Winterson.

An Artangel spokesman said the project would "offer the public an opportunity to reflect, in a particularly powerful place, on the implications for the individual when separated from society by the state".

He said they were "excited" to be opening the Victorian building to the public for the first time in its 170-year history.

A Grade II listed building, Reading Gaol opened in 1844 and became a remand centre and young offenders institution in 1992, before closing in 2013.

The Inside project is part of Reading's Year of Culture 2016 and also the first phase of Reading International, a new three-year arts initiative led by the University of Reading.

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