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Wittier than thou

Francois Tredoux

Work is the Curse of the Drinking Classes
An “entertainment” based on the life and works of Oscar Wilde
Text by Neil Titley

With Jeroen Kranenburg

Klein Libertas Theater, Stellenbosch.
9 to 11 October 2003.

The life of Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde’s is worthy of celebration — even if you’re not gay — and this one-man “entertainment” starring Jeroen Kranenburg celebrates the life with apt wit, style and faded elegance. It sets Wilde in a Parisian cafť, two years before his death in 1900, dazzling the audience with his sparkling bon mots. He talks, he gossips, he admonishes, he roars his disapproval, he whispers his confidences — he revels in words and their power.

It is a huge life — it is larger than life. To encompass Wilde in 60 minutes is well-nigh impossible. There is so much material with which to work. And so many previous texts: Peter Ackroyd’s 1983 novelisation of Wilde’s last years in Paris, The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde; Richard Ellman’s monumental Pulitzer-prize winning biography; Neil Bartlett’s almost hagiographic 1989 novel, Who was that man?; and Stephen Fry’s portrayal of Wilde in Brian Gilbert’s 1997 film version.

And yet this text works, even when compared with its illustrious predecessors. It works because this is Wilde in his own words, and only him. The other characters that played such important roles in his life — his mother Speranza, his wife Constance, and Bosie — feature only incidentally, in passing references. The text celebrates Wilde’s iconoclasm, his unwillingness to accept cant and rhetoric, and, in a final act of defiance, his loathing of Victorian morals and the claustrophobic religious life that was its source.

Jeroen Kranenburg’s seasoned performance captures the pathos and the loss of energy of the last years. Yet in the flashbacks there’s the verve, the electrifying energy that underlies Wilde’s wit, the grandness of stature, the booming voice that makes all forms of stupidity wither in its wake. Kranenburg’s 17 years’ experience in various aspects of theatre in Europe shows in his easy stage technique. His comic timing is perfect for Wilde’s paradoxes.

This play is not “politically relevant”. It does not say anything about apartheid or poverty or AIDS. It just celebrates art and wit and the importance of being honest, even if that honesty means turning every conceivable accepted wisdom upside down.

17 October 2003

boontoe / to the top

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