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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows, and various online archives preserve still more vintage productions. Even as things return to normal we continue to review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

The Importance Of Being Oscar
Original Theatre Online   July 2024

Micheal Mac Liammoir wrote and performed this one-man salute to Oscar Wilde in 1960, and it has frequently been revived by other actors, most recently by Alastair Whatley, whose Original Theatre production played a season at the Reading Rep in the spring of 2024.

That performance has been videotaped and made available via Original Theatre Online.

Unlike many other salute-to-a-writer shows, this one does not involve the actor impersonating or playing the role of his subject. Rather, he stands on an essentially bare stage and talks about him.

Mac Liammoir played it as a personal conversation about an old friend, but here Alastair Whatley and director Michael Fentiman make it more like a formal lecture. Whatley takes on a professorial tone and, at least in the first half of the evening, talks about Wilde without attempting to evoke any real sense of the man.

Wilde's story is generally well-known young Irish poet comes to England in the 1880s determined to make his name, first as a dandy and wit about town, one of the first famous-for-being-famous celebrities, and then for his writing, especially a string of witty social comedies.

But an attraction to younger men leads to scandal, prosecution for the crime of homosexuality, imprisonment and exile into shame and poverty.

For those who don't know all this, Whatley's professorial approach will be informative if not particularly entertaining. Even the quotations from Wilde's writing and verbal wit are presented dryly

That this is a decision and not a failing in the actor is evident in Whatley's reading of the famous 'Handbag' sequence from Wilde's comic masterpiece The Importance Of Being Earnest.

The scene demands (and forces on any actors playing it) a broad, almost high-camp style, but Whatley determinedly underplays it, as if the professor was only interested in its literary significance and not its comedy. (The jokes are so very good that they come though, but despite the delivery and not because of it.)

The First Act climaxes with the criminal trial that changed Wilde's life, and the event's importance and inherent drama energises Whatley so that we begin to feel, and not just observe, the tragic clash of a man and a society that simply do not understand each other, so that everything Wilde says in his defense dooms him even further.

In the Second Act, following Wilde through prison and beyond, Whatley continues to move from disinterested observer to explorer of his subject's internal experience.

Extended selections from De Profundis ('From The Depths') and The Ballad Of Reading Gaol evoke the significantly matured man, no longer determinedly trivial but facing his emotions and using his artistry to express them.

Mac Liammoir the writer and Whatley the actor make this part of the evening as intimate and moving as the first half was distant and objective.

Those who don't know Wilde's story may learn from the entire evening, but it is the second half where all the drama lies.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of The Importance Of Being Oscar 2024
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