THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST
The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 14th September, 2016
“We live in a world of surfaces,” says Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s comic masterpiece that holds a mirror up to society. Designer Isla Shaw takes this at face value and gives us a set that is all mirrored surfaces. It’s opulent and bright, and a nifty idea, but rather than draw us in, suggesting that the play is showing us ourselves, I find it distracting to see the actors reflected from all sides.
There seems to be a desire to give the piece – over a century old – a contemporary feel. This is entirely unnecessary; the lines are as fresh and funny as ever. Rather than blasting out electro-dance music, director Nikolai Foster should allow the play to speak for itself, and let it remind us how contemporary it feels without these jarring trappings. Poor Gwendolen (Martha Mackintosh) has to wear a period dress lacking a front from the knees down. It’s entirely out of keeping and I find myself questioning the design choices rather than listening to the dialogue. Fela Lufadeju’s John Worthing fares a little better: one of his suits makes him look like a bus conductor and his mourning clothes are a little too steampunk.
Apart from these disturbing elements, this is a highly enjoyable production, especially when the genius of Wilde is allowed to come to the fore. Handsome Edward Franklin seems most at home as the hedonistic Algernon, while Cathy Tyson’s Lady Bracknell is as formidable and imperious as you could hope. There is some neat character acting from Dominic Gately as Dr Chasuble and Angela Clerkin as Miss Prism, and I like Sharan Phull’s youthful energy as Cecily Cardew. Darren Bennett gives us two markedly different butlers; I’ve never seen a Merriman so camp. Some of the timing needs sharpening – the bitchy scene between the two young girls could be more arch – but on the whole, the cast deliver Wilde’s often convoluted sentences very well. They also, at times, need to ride the laughs a little better so that follow-up ripostes are not lost to us.
The delights of Wilde’s contrivances still tickle us. This seemingly trivial play is rich with social commentary and satire, and the revelations at the denouement are still breathtakingly silly. This production for the most part is a lovely confection; there are just one or two things I would leave on the side of my plate.