The Importance of Being Wilde

MORE THAN a century after his death in Paris, Oscar Wilde’s work remains as popular as ever while the triumphs and tragedies of his life exert an enduring fascination.

Within the past week alone, it has been reported that a new biopic, The Happy Prince, directed by Rupert Everett, is shortly to begin shooting, while much excitement has also been generated by the news that a copy of The Importance of Being Earnest, inscribed by Wilde to the governor of Reading Gaol, is to be auctioned this summer and is expected to fetch in the region of €70,000.

Here in Galway, the great success of the inaugural Oscar Wilde Festival last autumn also bears out the undying appeal of Wilde’s brilliant writing and colourful personality.

All of which should ensure plenty of interest in The Importance of Being Wilde, a compelling documentary play on Oscar’s life and career which comes to the Town Hall Theatre next week.

The play, written by Stephen Burns and performed by Burns and Matt Murphy, takes audiences through the scintillating peaks and terrible lows of Wilde’s remarkable life, and features extracts from some of his most celebrated works.

Burns has long been a devoted fan of Wilde, and as a 14-year-old he saw the great Micheal MacLiammoir perform his famous Wilde show, The Importance of Being Oscar.

“That was great, but also alarming,” he tells me. “MacLiammoir was quite old at that stage and I remember at one point he tried to sit on a chair and he missed it and I thought he was going to fall over but he just managed to right himself at the last moment!”

Burns toured an earlier version of The Importance of Being Wilde around the USA and performed it by special invitation before the royal family of Monaco. The centenary of Wilde’s death, in 2000, and the ceremonies marking the occasion prompted him to revisit and rework the play into its present form.

“On November 30 2000, the Irish and British ambassadors, along with many eminent playwrights and actors, gathered at Oscar’s grave at Pere Lachaise,” Burns explains. “He had been buried initially in a pauper’s grave before his remains were re-interred at Pere Lachaise.

“The play starts with that centenary occasion and reflects on how his reputation was rehabilitated after he had died in disgrace. He now has a statue in Merrion Square and a plaque in Westminster Abbey. His plays have been translated into 12 different languages and are performed throughout the world. From that starting point we go through his whole life and career building up to his death in Paris.”

Burns expands on the content of the show: “I was aiming for a populist audience so I stuck with what was reasonably familiar. There are pieces from The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband. We also do passages from his three trials and that section works very well.

“Wilde was at his audacious best at the beginning of the trials but at the end he’s a lot less cocksure. We also have a scene about how he died in Paris, and the people who were there for him and those who ostracised him. We do the show with two narrators so it’s a mix of narration and extracts from his works.

“We look at his upbringing, his time in Oxford, his visit to USA, and the writing of the plays. We also use John Betjeman’s poem The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel, and describe his time in prison, and of course The Ballad of Reading Gaol features. The show captures the essence of Wilde, both his great humour and his humanity.”

The Importance of Being Wilde is at the Town Hall on Wednesday May 28 at 8pm. Tickets are €18/16 through 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie

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