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.
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.