Interview: Jonathan Corkal-Astorga of DE PROFUNDIS at Soulpepper

New musical takes us into the mind of Oscar Wilde

By: Feb. 10, 2024
Interview: Jonathan Corkal-Astorga of DE PROFUNDIS at Soulpepper

In 1895, famed playwright and bon vivant Oscar Wilde was convicted of “gross indecency” pertaining to his romantic relationship with “Bosie,” the poet Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde’s life as he knew it was essentially over; sentenced to solitary confinement and hard labour, he found his possessions, his children, and his ability to earn money from his writing permanently taken away from him. After being in prison for more than a year, Wilde was finally allowed writing implements. He used them to compose an eighty-page letter to the man who broke his heart and ruined his life, while also examining that life from a new perspective. This week, Soulpepper premieres DE PROFUNDIS, a new musical adapted by Gregory Prest from Wilde’s searing composition, with music and lyrics by Mike Ross and Sarah Wilson.

BroadwayWorld spoke to Jonathan Corkal-Astorga, the production’s Associate Music Director, who also plays Wilde’s friend Robbie Ross (to whom Wilde gave the manuscript upon his release from prison), about the powerful meaning behind this intimate musical look into the mind of Oscar Wilde.

Photo of Jonathan Corkal-Astorga by Dahlia Katz

Photo of Jonathan Corkal-Astorga by Dahlia Katz

BWW: Wilde wrote De Profundis to his former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, while in prison for “gross indecency” for their same-sex relationship. Can you tell us a little about this story behind Wilde’s letter and his imprisonment?

CORKAL-ASTORGA: De Profundis was written by Oscar Wilde during the final months of his imprisonment in Reading Gaol. The trials which ultimately led to his prosecution were highly publicized, leading to public ruin and infamy for Wilde. The trials also had deeper societal implications, and represented a harsh conviction of homosexuality at large. While the letter begins as an indictment - of Lord Alfred Douglas, society, and even Wilde himself - it evolves into larger philosophical questions, and a deeply honest processing of sorrow.

BWW: What was the inspiration behind turning this work into a musical? What do you think will resonate with audience members?

CORKAL-ASTORGA: Music, in many ways, can act as an avenue into emotional depth. The idea of musicalizing moments of Wilde's emotional journey offers us another lens with which we can zoom into those raw, interior feelings. For me, what's most exciting about the songs Mike Ross and Sarah Wilson have written is that they take us in a wide range of directions, many of which audiences might not expect from a show about Oscar Wilde. Similarly, Gregory Prest's direction and adaptation of the text trusts us to go on that journey with him, allowing us to really sit in Wilde's shifting states of being, to fully take them in moment by moment.

BWW: What are the inherent challenges in creating a musical from an epistolary source? How does the letter come to life on stage?

CORKAL-ASTORGA: I think the most obvious challenge is that there's only one voice, and one recipient, being represented. But I firmly believe that more specificity ultimately leads to more universality.  The directness of the letter gives us a chance to fall wholly into Wilde's journey, in all its complexities. Similarly, the audience is a part of that story - in a sense, becoming the recipient of the letter and experiencing him undergo this personal growth.

BWW: Wilde wrote the letter one page a day for three months (all the paper that he was allowed) and wasn’t allowed to keep the pages, which were returned to him on his release. Do you think that impacted the structure and coherence of the work, and did that structure impact the musical choices? As well, there must have been a great emotional impact in writing a letter while knowing that it had no possibility of being sent until release from prison. How does that impact the storytelling?

CORKAL-ASTORGA: This presented a really exciting opportunity! Wilde committed each day's writing to what he felt, with very little revision ever being made to it. The letter is at once complex, inconsistent, messy, ugly, and beautiful. To that end, the structure and musical choices follow this format, and give us a chance to really commit to Wilde's emotional states. To turn it into something logical and tidy would have been untrue to what is a very human experience. Processing sorrow, anger, and grief puts us on paths of thinking that are not always pretty, but that will hopefully lead us towards peace and compassion.

BWW: Adaptor Gregory Prest has said that Damien [Atkins] is “the only person who could play Oscar.” Why is that, and what does Atkins uniquely bring to the role?

CORKAL-ASTORGA: Damien brings an incredible amount of heart and honesty into everything he does. He has a remarkable capacity for not only interpreting Wilde's text - which is dense and meandering - but turning it into music. To play Oscar Wilde is a challenging ask for any actor; everyone has an opinion of him, and we've seen him represented so many times in media, that there's bound to be a set expectation of who he is. In many ways, Gregory and Damien are breaking that expectation down, to not impersonate Wilde at all but to share different shades of his character. Damien is uniquely capable of taking us there, and of showing us a shifting range of colours through a very human journey.

Photo of <a target=Damien Atkins and Colton Curtis by Dahlia Katz" height="400" src="https://cloudimages.broadwayworld.com/upload13/2291362/Copy_of_SPDeProfundis-photobyDahliaKatz-6447.jpg" width="600" />

Photo of Damien Atkins and Colton Curtis by Dahlia Katz

BWW: The letter is, obviously, from Wilde’s perspective, but how does Douglas (or “Bosie”) fit into the musical as a character with his own voice? Can you also tell us a little about your character, Robbie, and what role he plays in the story?

CORKAL-ASTORGA: Much like in the letter, Bosie's presence within the piece is constantly felt. What do we turn people into, especially when we are in extreme isolation from them? How are we to process that anger without ever being able to talk to them, to hear their perspective? Colton Curtis does a remarkable job of embodying these ideas in his performance, transforming through Wilde's eyes and carrying a presence of both compassion and haunting. He and Damien have a beautiful sense of connection to each other throughout the piece.

Robbie Ross also had a uniquely intimate relationship to Wilde, and their close friendship lasted until Wilde's passing. Similarly, Robbie is always present for Wilde, nudging him to keep writing and expressing himself - or in our case, providing the musical foundation for him. There's a beautiful piece of history there too, as Robbie devoted the rest of his life acquiring the rights to Wilde's work and rewriting the public narrative surrounding him.

BWW: Is there anything else you’d like to share with prospective audiences?

CORKAL-ASTORGA: In many ways, sharing this piece feels like a true love letter to the original text; taking all the ugliness and beauty of our human experience and trying to turn it into art.  We get to share in something that every one of us has experienced in private, to face the many different sides of character that we all hold within us. I feel immensely lucky to be a part of that, and I can't wait to share this exciting piece with more audiences in the coming weeks!

DE PROFUNDIS runs until February 23rd at Soulpepper’s Michael Young Theatre, 50 Tank House Lane.




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