Emma Goldman meets Oscar reincarnated
Valentine's Day this year marks a decidedly unromantic centenary - that of the downfall of Oscar Wilde. A hundred years have gone by since the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest and the accusation by the Marquess of Queensberry that the great Irish playwright was a "somdomite". In commemoration, a plaque is to be unveiled to Wilde at Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey. But Neil Titley, Wilde's number one fan and most dedicated impersonator, will not be there. Instead, he will be performing his one-man show in the Middle East, explaining to fresh-from-Ramadan Muslims how he can resist anything but temptation.

Titley's obsession began in the Seventies, when he heard a lecture on Wilde by the actor Michael MacLiammoir and was so moved by it that he put pen to paper himself. Work is the Curse of the Drinking Classes was the result and, 16 years later, he has performed the show from Aberdeen to Bahrain (he would like to take it over the border to Saudi Arabia, but is nervous of how audiences might react to "elements of promiscuity and alcohol").

"To me, Wilde is a symbol of tolerance and forgiveness,'' Titley says, to explain his obsession. ``I want to keep that alternative alive."

A large, polite man who lives alone in London in a rented garden shed, Titley takes any job he can get to fund his touring (he was George Harrison's gardener for a week). On tour, he travels by bus carrying two bags: one containing his costume, the othera tent. Upon arriving at a randomly selected destination, he sets up camp before checking out possible venues. If a landlord agrees to let him do a show, Titley will spend the next couple of days pasting up advertisements for it.

His largest-ever audience was 700 people, at the City Variety Theatre in Leeds in 1983; his smallest was at Bideford Arts Centre, Devon, a year later, and comprised one man. Only once has he failed to complete a performance: it was in Wales and, due to adouble booking, he had been forced to perform in a cowshed: halfway through, the wind blew the door open and a horse wandered in; it seemed pointless to carry on.

One summer, when he was doing free shows in Henley-on-Thames, there came a night when nobody turned up. Titley sent his wife out to see if she could find some punters and she returned with six skinheads from the local bus-stop. They threw empty soup cansat him before falling asleep.

In some places on his travels, he is treated, he says, "like Princess Diana. In others, like the theatre cat". Once, his tent was burnt down, and he was hounded out of town like an Elizabethan actor.

Summer 1993 was better - spent performing in Antibes on the Cote d'Azur. The show was also put on at the American University in Nice; two old French ladies came every day.

On returning to England, Titley learned that his play had been copied and a bootleg version was running in translation in Berlin. How does Wilde go down in Germany? "Very well, apparently," he says angrily. "Second only to Shakespeare."

I leave him listening to a crackly recording of an original reading from The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Above him, on the shed wall, Wilde stares out haughtily from a photograph.

"He was", breaks in a critic's voice, "the kindest and most generous of men." Titley nods vigorously, repeating the phrase.

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