Well, if it’s Saturday afternoon during the great lockdown, that can only mean one thing – a matinee by Oscar Wilde. This time it’s the big one – the last, and universally considered the best, of his mainstream plays The Importance Of Being Earnest. This play must run a close second to Hamlet for the most often quoted lines in the whole history of British drama, perhaps even outstrips it – no pressure then!
Right from the opening curtain it was clear this is going to be a production that would stray rather a way from the mainstream iterations of the past. Algernon is saying goodbye to a young Bosie like figure, presumably after a night of passion, a picture of naked male wrestlers adorns the walls and he plays the piano with some Liberace style flourishes. It also becomes clear quite quickly that his manservant Lane is offering his master services over and above the purchase of cucumbers for “ready money”. Not so much subtext then as foregrounding of sexual ambivalence. Indeed, it is sex that seems to drive the majority of the characters – particularly the females. Cecily is first encountered dallying over a cigarette with a Mellors-like gardener, Gwendolen rubs herself erotically against Algy’s piano, Miss Prism trembles with supressed sexual energy and even two maidservants in the background share a brief kiss. The one notable exception is Lady Bracknell who is perhaps starved of sexual contact – which possibly explains her bullying demeanour and desire to supress the happiness of others. If this weren’t enough there is also a lot of erotically charged consumption of food by characters as they repeatedly ram things into each other’s mouths.
Does all this work? Not if you are used to and appreciate a rather sunnier and lighter interpretation. The set, as designed by Madeleine Girling, also picks up this sense of darkness. The interiors are rather stygian and extremely sparse – the windows of the manor house (which seems to be home to any number of underemployed servants) could certainly do with a well applied chamois. Even the garden gives off no sense of summer airiness and joy being rather monochromatic and somewhat left to run wild(e). The costumes by Gabriella Slade, as with all the Classic Spring productions, are lavish, though also pick up on the main thrust of the play by emitting an aura of decadence.
The dialogue is played very fast which is generally refreshing although it does see the actors snapping at each others cues like terriers. While this gives a sense of purposefulness and power to the text, on the odd occasion it might have been nice to savour the Wildean wit even if just briefly before rushing onto the next fence. The Beecher’s Brook moment (I speak equinally – my metaphor is drawn from horse racing) – “A handbag?” is delivered in slightly disbelieving tones followed by a virtual double take which is, at least, different. The rest of Oscar’s epigrams are skilfully conveyed by the cast so as to seem natural rather than the “bolt ons” they can so often become. It is evident that director Michael Fentiman’s approach to the text has been rigorous.
As far as performances go, they are a mixed bag. Both Jack and Algy come across as rather foppish and somewhat underpowered (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd and Fehinti Balogun respectively) while Jeremy Swift as Canon Chasuble gives us standard comedy vicar stuff. The ladies fare somewhat better. Sophie Thompson makes a domineering dynamo of Lady Bracknell with a commanding voice and a basilisk glare. Stella Gonet makes a fine job of Miss Prism’s repressions and comes across as slightly neurotic. Pippa Nixon and Fiona Button make a strikingly strong pair of young women as Gwendolen and Cecily respectively. Their tea party scene (possibly the production’s highlight) is delightfully ferocious underneath the surface gentility and it is no wonder that the attending servants creep away to avoid a tongue lashing.
And just what is going on with the servants? They seem to be taking far too many liberties with their employers and in the last act stand around gawping through the library windows as events unfold. I’m sure there’s probably some big “comment” being made about the class divide but if there is, I confess it eluded me.
It has been interesting to follow the four Classic Spring productions in the order in which Wilde wrote them. If nothing else, they revealed Oscar’s semi-obsession with the bonds between parents and children. It also served to demonstrate how he refined his technique across quite a short period, largely jettisoning plot and concentrating on characters and the surface wit that have been his trademark ever since.
Production photos by Marc Brenner
The Importance Of Being Earnest (along with the rest of Classic Spring’s Wilde season) is available via Marquee TV. This is a subscription service, but they currently have a thirty-day free trial offer
My review of Lady Windermere’s Fan is here, of A Woman Of No Importance is here and of An Ideal Husband is here. The latter is the clear “winner” of the season
The Curve, Leicester has an alternative production of The Importance Of Being Earnest available. Click here
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