From 1961, when he devised it, until a tour just a few years before his death in 1978, The Importance of Being Oscar was a mainstay to Micheal MacLiammoir, the egregious co-founder of Dublin's Gate Theatre. In his book Being an Actor, Simon Callow gives a funny and affectionate account of the performer at a time when he was so nearly blind that it was only by swathing the stage in his own dazzlingly patterned carpet that he could prevent himself toppling over the edge. Now, in Patrick Garland's production at the Savoy, the MacLiammoir vehicle becomes a showcase for Callow himself.
The result is oddly frustrating. Even if you haven't read Callow's excellent essay on Wilde in the programme, you're continually aware that the linking bits are by MacLiammoir and that they now seem a bit dated. An excellent opportunity has been missed here. Callow's abilities as a mimic admittedly aren't infallible - his Lady Bracknell is, in her effeminate whinnying, more my idea of Georgie, the precious bachelor in E F Benson's Mapp & Lucia novels, and his impersonation of the degenerating portrait of Dorian Gray looks less the last word in depravity than retarded rusticity on its last legs.
But, given his vivid multiple transformations in a recent production of Volpone and the impersonations that do come to life here (among them a splendid comic cameo of a Northern Irish prison warder who sought Wilde's literary opinions), the odds are that Callow could do a cracking take- off of MacLiammoir. Instead of simply reviving The Importance of Being Oscar in a way that leaves him neither playing a role, exactly, nor being himself, it might have been more interesting if Callow had made a dramatic point of the fact that this was MacLiammoir's portrait of Wilde, thus bringing out the fascinating parallels between the two men and accounting for the performer's obsessive identification. (Thus, where Wilde was an Irishman who refashioned himself as a London sophisticate, "MacLiammoir" was the invented name of Alfred Willmor of Willesden whose cultural remaking was in the opposite direction.)
Simon Callow as Micheal MacLiammoir as Oscar Wilde and his creations? If that sounds top heavy, you can't have seen Neil Bartlett's play-within- a-play, life-mirrors-art version of The Picture of Dorian Gray. The admirable thing about Bartlett, though, is that his work on Wilde is always careful to situate itself in the history of gay culture. Wilde knew that he was a man who "stood in symbolic relation to the art and culture of my age". But what he symbolises for subsequent periods changes. Genial, witty, sometimes pleasingly hammy, and often moving, this production could, to all intents and purposes, be taking place at any time since the 1967 Act.
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