THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST
Rose Theatre, Kingston on Thames, Tuesday 25th October, 2011
You wait years for a production of Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece and then two come along in the same season. This one, at Kingston’s marvellous Rose, outshines the earlier one in practically every aspect.
The stage is dominated by a false proscenium arch, gilded and enormous. To the characters it is the elephant in the room but to the audience it is a constant and glaring reminder of the theatricality of the piece. All is contrivance and artifice, and while other versions take the script at face value and play things naturalistically, allowing Wilde’s wonderful wit to do the donkey work, Stephen Unwin directs this cast to play for laughs. There is a physicality to the characters I have not seen before.
In particular, Daniel Brocklebank displays a talent for comic playing as protagonist Jack. He gives the character a short fuse – an explosion into frustrated rage is never far away, invariably provoked by Bruce Mackinnon’s carefree Algernon. This Jack not only lives by his wits, he is frequently at his wits’ end. It is a spirited and energised performance, both nuanced and larger-than-life.
There is a delicious double-take from Jane Asher as the imperious hypocrite, Lady Bracknell but not where you think it might be and, while just a few of the lines are thrown away, the entire cast forms a delightful ensemble. The epigrams trip off their tongues but there is also some acutely observed physical business that enhances the action. Richard Cordery’s Chasuble is a gentle giant of a man, shaking the dew from his shoes as he strolls around the grounds with Ishia Bennison’s scatterbrained Miss Prism. Jack’s searching of the army records that will deliver the resolution to the ridiculous plot is perfectly silly. It is not just the fact that the answer lies in these old books but the way he consults them. It is attention to details like this that raises this production above others.
I would like to have seen more made of Merriman the butler when Gwendolen and Cecily are engaging in the most elegant bitch-fight in all literature, but all in all, I left the theatre invigorated by the new life injected into this old classic.