THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST
The Old Rep, Birmingham, Tuesday 13th September, 2011
One of the funniest plays ever written, Oscar Wilde’s …Earnest is crammed with epigrams, bon mots and quips, but these have to be delivered with a lightness of touch that requires quite a lot of effort to pull off. Lesser actors may find the lines tongue-twisters or focus so much on diction that characterisation is neglected.
This production, although dingily lit – even in the garden scene – allows the wit of Wilde to coruscate and shine. I quickly warmed to Tom Davey’s Jack but for me the performance of the night was given by Emerald O’Hanrahan as Jack’s ward, Cecily. She captured the erudition of Wilde’s dialogue alongside the naïveté of the character.
Although she only appears in two of the play’s four acts, the character of Lady Bracknell dominates public perception of this piece, indelibly stamped by Dame Edith Evans. It is always interesting to see how the lucky actor will deliver the famous line: “A handbag?” This production takes the unusual step of casting a man in the role of this battleaxe. It doesn’t quite work. Nick Caldecott is inescapably a man in a posh frock and his sing-song delivery grates after a while – I kept expecting him to burst into a selection from Hedwig & The Angry Inch at any minute.
The set is lined with bookcases, and books figure quite a lot in the plot: Cecily’s detested German, the young women’s diaries and the military records that reveal the truth behind Jack’s identity. At odds then with the design is a large, cut-out painted rose that is suspended over the garden furniture in the second act. To me this seemed an amateurish touch. I would have perhaps incorporated the books somehow to suggest an overhanging branch, pages spilling out like leaves…
The play is laugh-out-loud funny throughout but the laughter is elicited by the script rather than the performance. Miss Prism’s revelations at the denouement tip the scales towards melodrama, invigorating the others and delighting the audience. We enjoy the sheer, unapologetic artifice of the piece as the resolution conveniently sews everything up. I was struck yet again by the subversive nature of Wilde’s comedy, the subtly damning mockery of an entire social class in such a charming and witty manner that remains unequalled to this day.