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When Oscar Wilde came to Norfolk

PUBLISHED: 11:27 23 June 2010 | UPDATED: 17:28 01 July 2010

Abigail Saltmarsh

Nearly 120 years ago flamboyant playwright Oscar Wilde came to Norfolk. Now his tale is to be told here through a one man show. ABIGAIL SALTMARSH reports.

Abigail Saltmarsh

Nearly 120 years ago flamboyant playwright Oscar Wilde came to Norfolk. Now his tale is to be told here through a one man show. ABIGAIL SALTMARSH reports.

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It was in 1892 that Oscar Wilde decided to make Norfolk his temporary home. The colourful and controversial writer had been advised by his doctor to head to the county to take in “the pure air.”

Influenced by other writers, such as 19th poet and theatre critic Clement Scott, who coined the term “Poppyland,” he went to north Norfolk for a while.

Wilde stayed at the Hotel de Paris in Cromer, and also rented a farmhouse, where he apparently wrote A Woman of No Importance, before returning to London in 1893 to see it staged.

So it's rather fitting that a one man show about the playwright is to be performed in Norwich.

Fifty years after The Importance of Being Oscar was first performed in 1960 by actor, dramatist and impresario Micheál Mac Liammóir, the Original Theatre Company and the Icarus Theatre Collective have resurrected it.

Alastair Whatley, who plays the part of Wilde, and other characters in the show, explained that Mac Liammóir was himself something of a flamboyant character.

“He was born in London but he was obsessed with the Irish culture. He taught himself the language, changed his name and presented himself as Irish,” he explained. “In many ways, he was a bit like Wilde's character Dorian Gray.

“He wanted to remain young and, from a distance, he looked young. But when you got close to him, his face was covered with thick make-up.”

Mac Liammóir wrote and starred in the one man play. In 1997, it was resurrected by Simon Callow, who had worked briefly as a dresser to Mac Liammóir, and shortly after, it had one stint on Broadway.

But, apart from that, said Alastair, it is believed the play has not been performed until now. “It is nice to be doing it on its 50th anniversary. When Mac Liammóir first wrote and performed in it, it had a huge impact.

“In a way it helped to restore Oscar Wilde's reputation and allowed his work to be considered on an equal footing once again,” he said.

The play, which is directed by Tom Neill, charts the writer's rise and fall, he continued. It is a theatrical biography, which incorporates excerpts of his work, including The Ballad of Reading Gaol and De Profundis, Wilde's famous letter to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas.

“I play everyone from Oscar Wilde to Lady Bracknell - it is a kaleidoscope of parts and it is very challenging,” he said.

Born in 1854, Wilde published his first collection of poetry in 1881. In 1884, he married Constance Lloyd, the daughter of a prominent barrister and together they went on to have two sons.

Over the following years, he wrote The Happy Prince and Other Tales, The House of Pomegranates and The Picture of Dorian Gray.

His first play, Lady Windermere's Fan, opened in February 1892 and he then went on to write A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest. All highly acclaimed, the plays firmly established Wilde as an acclaimed writer.

In the summer of 1891, Wilde met Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, the third son of the Marquis of Queensberry.

They soon became lovers and were inseparable until Wilde was arrested four years later, convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years hard labour.

After his release, he wandered Europe, staying with friends and living in cheap hotels, until he died in 1900 from meningitis

“For me there was a big attraction to playing the character of Wilde,” said Alastair.

“Before I did this, I probably knew as much as most people about him. I knew a few of his most famous plays and that he was involved in some sort of scandal.

“But as I started learning more, I realised how amazing his life was - it was both a comedy and a tragedy.

“There was very much very much two sides to him and one did have a tinge of darkness. However, badly the Victorians treated him for his homosexuality you also have to remember that he did have a wife and children - and that he did not fulfil his responsibility towards them.”

Currently on tour with The Importance of Being Oscar, Alastair, who is from Bury St Edmund's is looking forward to bringing the play to Norfolk, where Wilde famously stayed.

“We have been to the Playhouse recently with Shakespeare's R&J and a version of Othello, where the characters had instruments, and we always enjoy playing there,” he said.

“The audience in Norwich has a friendly character so the performances are always fun. I think this play about Wilde will go down just as well.”

t The Importance of Being Oscar will be performed at Norwich Playhouse on June 24, £12 (£10 cons), £8 student groups, 01603 598598, www.norwichplayhouse.co.uk

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