“a play that joyfully entertains, attentively engages, and draws us complicit in trials of love”

Walkabout Productions strolls into the Durham Student Theatre scene as an innovative new concept company taking students into the realm of immersive theatre.

‘A Wilde Night’, is an original piece written, directed, and produced by Durham students Max Shanagher and Tully Hyams, aided by a brilliant crew of Mati Chiromo, Freyde Sayers, and Louis Renouf. They present a beautifully crafted homage to the life and works of Oscar Wilde, a writer, lover, and prisoner of great creative vitality and deep sensitivity who is most famous for works including ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ and ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’. Wilde’s own narrative runs as a thread through vignettes of his imaginative plays and poems, alongside his more melancholic musings from imprisonment, and scenes from his own life’s dramas. 

As Wilde, played by George Thomas, saunters into the expectant hush of Hatfield chapel, we are presented with a man who is smart and self-aware. Thomas makes good use of the audience’s attention as he passionately gesticulates through his imprisoned narration, seeming glad to perform one’s thoughts to something more than four cell walls. The dazzling performative personality of Wilde is gently eroded throughout the play, masterfully peeking behind the façade of his farces to lay bare the decay in decadence. 

The transitions from Wilde’s life to play extracts are well varied. At times the fluidity could be somewhat confusing for demarcating the ‘real’ life of Wilde and his invented scenes as he blurs between the boundaries of both. However, this only adds to the effect of his episodic remembrance of his art that is imbued with intimate emotion of his own life of love and loss. Harsh blue lighting and sounds of dripping damp and rats clearly bring the audience into Wilde’s cell walls, with all tribute to the production team of Henry Flack, Theo Nellis, Rupert Whittaker, and Amy Ware who manoeuvre multiple performance spaces and a vast variety of settings adeptly.

Credit must be given to the smooth travelling transitions between the chapel and room locations. The ushers remain faithfully true to character throughout, to wonderfully comedic effect, and help to create a real buzz of chatty anticipation amongst the audience. The novelty of discussing the play with fellow audience members throughout the show adds to the naturalistic feel of intruding into a party as nosy guests or entering to see a new Wilde play as original audience members against the jeers of protesters. My only wish would have been for even bolder use of the scene changes, perhaps planting stagehands as audience members to be charged with helping the hurried butlers in moving each scene without need for the interrupting blackouts. 

The cast does a spectacular job of presenting a wide range of Wilde’s material while confidently engaging with the audience. Comfortable with inviting us into the action as party guests (supplied with prosecco and cucumber sandwiches!) the lines blur between audience and cast. We observe as a fly-on-the-wall to intimate scenes of Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, played by Alfie Cook, and Wilde’s love, which feels at some points almost intrusive as Cook is tenderly enraptured by Wilde’s artistry and personality. The striking dynamics between the characters in each vignette is testament to a well-mixed cast, glancing from well- known comedic roles of Algernon (Ben Rook), Lady Bracknell (Olivia Adderley), Jack (T Stedman-Jones), and Gwendolyn (Daisy Summerfield), to the seductions of Salome (Clara Dammann) and Jokanaan (Roan Khanna), to the heartaches of Constance Wilde/ Lady Windermere (Alannah O’Hare). 

‘A Wilde Night’ is eloquent and evocative in the haunting final image of Wilde’s creations encircling him with lines from ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ in his final moments; a play that joyfully entertains, attentively engages, and draws us complicit in trials of love. 

By Hetty Mentzel

A Wilde Night is performing at Hatfield College Chapel until the 26th January

Photo credits: Walkabout productions