Video: Wilde weekend as Lissan House plays backdrop to masterpiece

A long forgotten link between Oscar Wilde and Lissan House will be remembered with a performance of his deliciously witty masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest.

The play - in association with Centre Stage Theatre Company - will be part of the inaugural Oscar Wilde Theatre Season which takes place at the demesne just outside Cookstown on the weekend of July 3-5.

Exterior of Cafe Royal as it appeared in 1890.

Exterior of Cafe Royal as it appeared in 1890.

The performance of Wilde’s most famous play could not be more apt as it marks the re-establishment of the links between the famous literary figure and the Staples family who lived at Lissan for almost 400 years.

As part of his role as a picture journalist on Fleet Street, Robert Ponsonby Staples, a younger son of Lissan House’s owner, attended the world premiere of The Importance of Being Earnest at the St James’s Theatre on St Valentine’s Day in 1895.

During the play Ponsy, as he was known, sketched his friend Wilde as he sat in the wings watching the performance. The portrait displayed Wilde’s a joyous pride as well as an underlying fear which perhaps hinted at the inner turmoil being experienced by the playwright who had just commenced the libel action against the Marquess of Queensberry and which would end with his imprisonment just two months later.

The last decade of the nineteenth century saw London become the cultural capital of the world, and at its centre was an artistic and bohemian group of painters, writers, princes and politicians who became associated with the Cafe Royal on Regent Street.

Sir Robert Ponsonby Staples in later life.  He was known as 'the barefoot baronet' as he refused to wear shoes, believing that the earth exuded natural electricity which was beneficial to the health. He would take a trip once a week to Belfast when he lived at Lissan to walk on the tramlines and get an extra injection of electricity! The gardner was required once a week to trim the hard skin from his feet with the hedge clippers.

Sir Robert Ponsonby Staples in later life. He was known as 'the barefoot baronet' as he refused to wear shoes, believing that the earth exuded natural electricity which was beneficial to the health. He would take a trip once a week to Belfast when he lived at Lissan to walk on the tramlines and get an extra injection of electricity! The gardner was required once a week to trim the hard skin from his feet with the hedge clippers.

At the head of this movement was Wilde but at the same time the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) wined and dined his mistress, Lily Langtry, and Aubrey Beardsley sketched some of his most shocking works. James McNeill Whistler, Walter Sickert and Augustus John talked about high art over aperitifs at the Cafe Royal.

Ponsy had been accepted into the artistic melee and became close friends with both Wilde and the Prince of Wales.

At Lissan, this production will present a fully costumed dramatic reading of Wilde’s famous play in the historic and perfectly suited interiors at the property. The playwright would have known Lissan well through his friend Ponsy and may even have visited the house on one of his many trips to Ireland on a “Bunbury”.

Ponsy entertained many of the Cafe Royal set in secret weekend getaways (some of which are rumoured to have counted the Prince in their number) where they could indulge in their scandalous pursuits in complete seclusion at Lissan.

Each act of the play will be performed in exactly the sort of room that Wilde imagined the action taking place: cucumber sandwiches will be nibbled by Algernon and Earnest in the oak-panelled great hall at Lissan, Gwendolen and Cecily will enjoy tea in the perfume-infused formal gardens, and the hilarious denouement will take place in the stately Regency Ballroom.

As such, audiences will be small and will be right at the heart of the play.

Directed by Colin Carnegie, the sparkling local cast is headed by Roma Tomelty as Lady Bracknell alongside Game of Thrones’ Gordon Fulton as the Canon, and Brigid Erin Bates (Tess, A Room With A View, and Your Highness) as Miss Prism.

A light Victorian supper will be served with a glass of bubbles in the beauty of the formal gardens during the interval.

Performances will take place on Friday and Saturday at 7.30pm with a matinee on Sunday at 2.30pm and a final performance at 7pm.

For further information place contact Dr Neil Watt on 028 8676 3312 or lissan.house@btinternet.com