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Wilde at heart

As if 'Being an Actor' wasn't enough, Simon Callow is now set on being Oscar too. Courtesy of a one-man theatrical tribute to his stage mentor, Micheal MacLiammoir. By Dominic Cavendish
Ask Simon Callow about other people's one-man shows and you get a deep, orotund dismissal, "I've seen many bad ones. I hate the ones that are pious, cosy, and celebratory in a saccharine way. I think they're detestable. The lovingness the performers show towards the central character is cloying." Simon Callow is treading on thin ice. His latest acting project is potentially more pious than a vicar in a Merchant-Ivory film, cosier than Four Weddings and a Funeral and more celebratory in a saccharine way than an Olivier Awards speech. The Importance of Being Oscar, just opened at the Savoy Theatre, is a two-and-a-half-hour-long solo tribute to Ireland's most notorious aesthete, an oral tapestry of Wilde's writings woven by the Irish actor Micheal MacLiammoir in 1960 and shown round the world to huge approval until 1975, the year before he died.

"The longest five minutes in the world [are] the five minutes before a one-man show hits the stage," Callow declared in his 1985 tome, Being an Actor. Why is someone who seems able to direct, act or write whenever he chooses puffing himself through all the toil and torment of going it alone? Particularly in a show that was so closely identified with another actor that it almost vanished with him?

The dramatic monologue - where a solitary fictional character addresses, or is overheard by, an audience - has only a handful of great practitioners: those by Chekhov, Cocteau and Beckett are probably the biggest contenders in the popularity stakes apart from Alan Bennett's Talking Heads. What chance, then, does a one-person show, which exhumes a real character, have of a life of its own, so dependent as it is on getting the right relationship between performer and subject? It's not surprising that this particular species of monologue tends to have more in common with the music-hall of Stanley Holloway than with Beckett's Not I: light entertainment, as safe as an evening with Maureen Lipman and as fuddy-duddy as one of Bennett's stay-at-homes.

MacLiammoir's old-fashioned rhetorical style is certainly in this reverential tradition, but Callow leaps to its defence, arguing that "you won't hear anything like it on the British stage this year. It's plummy, many-hued, a rich cake laced with brandy, curiously flavoursome and tasty. And ripe. Yes, it's ripe." He has an enormous personal stake in The Importance of Being Oscar. Whereas previous monologue portraits (his own Rousseau and Juvenal on the fringe; Charles Dickens readings last year for the BBC) have been spurred on by mere enthusiasm, this one is powered by an obsessive double attachment. First to MacLiammoir, whom he met as a student at Queen's Belfast in 1969 and for whom he served as dresser when the actor came to perform his Wilde show at that year's Irish University Drama festival. It was meeting this "exotic, utterly captivating" man - the London-born founder of the Dublin Gate - that persuaded Callow to quit university for the stage. The chief bond, though, is with Oscar Wilde. "My absolute hero in every possible regard," Callow affirms. "The more I found out about him, the more I wanted to be him. I wrote a play about him when I was young. As a student at Queen's, I sat around talking in what I imagined was a Wildean fashion, epigrams tumbling out of my mouth. As an actor, I've always wanted to play him, but unfortunately I'm completely the wrong shape and size."

You could accuse Callow of hiding a life's ambition behind a humble homage. Although The Importance of Being Oscar doesn't ostensibly demand that the actor be Wilde, there are enough passages, particularly from his letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, De Profundis, where reader and writer become imperceptibly aligned. There is certainly little justification for the show on the grounds of informing the public. Nineteen years on, MacLiammoir's biographical material has been surpassed by academic research and the piece contains few references to Wilde's homosexuality. "MacLiammoir had his pulse on Oscar Wilde as a personality," Callow counters. "Wilde constructed a personality for himself, believing that on it depended his value as an artist. By personality he didn't mean in the corrupted sense of David Frost, but the inner life transformed into the outer self." MacLiammoir expressed a similar sentiment in his autobiography, All for Hecuba, describing the actor's medium as his personality. Callow, too, admits he paid fastidious attention to his image when he was younger. "I wanted to make myself into something fascinating and interesting."

Viewed in this light, Callow's involvement with MacLiammoir's monologue seems more intelligent than indulgent, and the one-man show more potentially complex than it appears. The story of Oscar Wilde, presented by a solitary actor, becomes an object lesson in the limits of self-construction. The first half is the portrait of a society dandy, the one-man-one-liner express ("I have no wish to pose as ordinary" etc); the second, in Reading Gaol, presents a vigorously introspective re-evaluation: "The violent shock about prison for him was that he was stripped of all external aspects of his personality, reduced to an ailing two-legged beast," says Callow. "He had to discover who he really was." At this point, the choice of actor is crucial in creating a bridge between the immortal, larger-than-life character the audience knows and the fragile creature in whom it suddenly recognises itself.

Just how difficult this is to pull off is illustrated by Being There with Peter Sellers, a resume of the comedian and actor's life by Richard Braine. Braine does a mean impression of Sellers' silly Goons voices and his Richard III-style Beatles numbers, but in attempting to show a man who was less than the sum of his personas, who had no voice of his own, he tries to fill the void with his own bright-eyed and beamy presence. Although the premise behind Sellers talking is his attempt to prevent a suicide jump off Archway Viaduct (a story Braine picked up during his research), the notion that his reflections are themselves a cry for help is never brought home.

By contrast, Think No Evil of Us: My Life with Kenneth Williams by David Benson, the portrait of another embittered talent, does manage to strike a balance between performer and subject so that we see Williams, like Wilde, as a man whose outlandish personality was both source of fame and misery.

Although Benson tries his hardest to switch the focus of attention on to himself for half the show, and unlike Callow has no personal interest in his subject ("I did this show because I wanted to launch me, David Benson, as a solo performer"), his neutral presence when impersonating Williams renders the character at once superior to us and ordinary. One of the final scenes before his suicide, in which he jokes with and viciously snaps at invisible guests in a restaurant, shows him simultaneously inside and out, a man telling others stories, and desperately telling himself stories too. A reminder of and a match for Beckett's stripped-to-the-core speaker in A Piece of Monologue: "Birth was the death of him. Ghastly grinning ever since." Whether Callow can manage a similar feat with Wilde remains to be seen, but cloying, cosy and celebratory is only one way of doing itn

'The Importance of Being Oscar', Savoy Theatre, London WC2 (0171-836 8888) to 10 May. 'Being There with Peter Sellers', Pleasance Theatre, London N7 (0171-609 1800) to 29 Mar. 'Think No Evil of Us: My Life with Kenneth Wiliams' tours in the UK to 30 Oct (call 0171-379 3797 for details)