Oscar Wilde centenary

Susan Jeffreys

'A brilliant life, up to a certain point': Susan Jeffreys celebrates the man who couldn't live up to his china

Oscar Wilde's name was expunged from the roll-of-honour board at Portora school in Ireland after his trial in 1895, then restored in the 1930s. You can see the board in the prologue section, covering his childhood, of Oscar Wilde: a life in six acts, which opens today at the British Library: one of many events to mark the centenary of the playwright, poet, storyteller and aesthete.

It's a fine and fittingly theatrical exhibition with much draping of velvet and setting of scenes. A giant fireplace, reducing all visitors to child proportions, dominates the room devoted to Wilde's birth and family. Peer round the back of the fireplace and you'll find accounts of why life in the Wilde house in Dublin was more than a little unusual. An American railway carriage is the scene for Act 2, Wilde's celebrity tour of America. At this stage in his life he had achieved relatively little but, in his velvets and high sheen silk stockings, was famous for being famous - as Liz Hurley is today. His face, exhibits show, was used to sell anything from skin cream to cowboy boots.

Treasured letters from his children give us Wilde the family man. A dazzling, all-white recreation of the dining room of his London home in Tite Street covers his domestic life - his underworld life is represented in more sombre tones. As you proceed through the six acts to the final curtain - death and pauper's grave - recordings tell stories from Wilde's life. Merlin Holland, his grandson, has assisted with the exhibition and contributed letters, photographs and memorabilia, many of which are on display for the first time. A programme of talks and readings runs until February 2.

"I see a very brilliant life for you up to a certain point," the clairvoyant Mrs Robinson told Wilde, "then I see a wall. Beyond the wall I see nothing." Wilde called Mrs Robinson the Sybil of Mortimer Street, and In Extremis, a two-hander by Neil Bartlett just opened at the National Theatre, looks at a fatal crossing in their life lines, with Corin Redgrave as Wilde and Sheila Hancock as the Sybil. Mrs Robinson correctly predicted a "great triumph" for Wilde. Unfortunately her prediction came a week before he sued the Marquess of Queensberry, the father of his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas ("Bosie"), for criminal libel. Timing is everything.

The National's centenary contribution also includes Oscar Wilde Week, from November 27 (he died on November 30, 1900). There are Platform Performance readings of The Importance of Being Earnest (a set play), the fairy tales and "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" as well as free outdoor events. In Extremis is in repertory until December 16 in a double bill with De Profundis, a dramatisation of the long, wounded letter from Wilde, prisoner C3.3. at Reading, to Douglas - "Our ill-fated and most lamentable friendship has ended in ruin and public infamy for me." Redgrave, who again takes the part of Wilde, doesn't attempt an impersonation. "The point," he says, "is to say something about what he was, what e represented and what he spoke for." De Profundis is a moving work that shows Wilde caught and broken, the victim of a war between Douglas and his father. Redgrave finds the role "an immense responsibility", but says: "When you're lucky you feel his presence relieving you of that burden." It's almost, Redgrave adds, as if Wilde was a benevolent shade saying "Go on. Do it." Each performance lasts an hour, but Wilde's original letter was far longer. It's published in its entirety in The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, edited by Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davies (Fourth Estate pound;35), a book full of grace, wit and gratitude. "I used to think gratitude a heavy burden for one to carry," he writes to Max Beerbohm on his release. "Now I know that it is something that makes the heart lighter."

Wilde's role as the self-appointed head of the Aesthetic Movement brings to mind the other immortal line: "I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china." The bailiffs got his china after his bankruptcy but the Geffrye Museum in east London has found other pieces well worth living up to, for The House Beautiful: Oscar Wilde and the aesthetic interior (until January 21). They've also found a very funny teapot. With one hand on its hip and the other making a spout, this Royal Worcester piece demonstrates "the fearful consequences of living up to one's teapot". Wilde's period seems familiar to today's home improvers, with much staining of floorboards and sneering at fitted carpets. The Geffrye's exquisite patterns for Linoleum and a grimy example of the real stuff show the enduring gap between designer dreams and reality.

Lady Macbeth, Wilde noted, buys her husband's clothes thriftily and locally "but does her own shopping in Byzantium". A portrait of Ellen Terry by Sargent, in the lush costume that prompted this remark, glows away in Oscar Wilde and the Art of His Time at the Barbican until January 14. Some stunning, and rarely seen, pieces have been found for the show and the admission fee also lets you into Rock Style, with the Beatles' suits, the Supremes' dresses and just about everybody in pop's leather jacket. It's as decadent and desperately stylish as the Oscar celebration upstairs, and he'd have loved it.

Oscar Wilde: a life in six acts, British Library pound;4.50, concessions pound;3, under-18s free. Free teacher's pack, free teachers' pre-visits and open evenings. Seminars for sixth-formers take Wilde's writing as a starting point for looking at language. Details from the BL education service, tel: 020 7412 7797. Email education@bl.uk or see www.education.bl.uk. Bookings for In Extremis, De Profundis and the Oscar Wilde Week Platform Performances at the National Theatre on 020 7452 3000. Readings of The Importance of Being Earnest are at the Cottesloe Theatre on November 28 and 29. The House Beautiful: Oscar Wilde and the aesthetic interior at the Geffrye Museum, Kingsland Road, London E2, is free, details: 020 7739 9893. Oscar Wilde and the Art of his Time (plus Rock Style) Barbican Centre to January 14, pound;7, school and full-time students pound;2. Groups: 020 7382 7211

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Susan Jeffreys

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