Review: The Importance of Being Earnest

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
Director: Irina Brown
Reviewer: Honour Bayes

“We live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces” Lady Bracknell admits in Oscar Wilde’s delightfully nonsensical The Importance of Being Earnest, and so it would seem to be in Irina Brown’s rather outward facing production at the Open Air Theatre in Regents Park. Set against Kevin Knight’s incredibly stark background of white minimalist lines and huge mirrors which sparkle as coldly as Wilde’s dialogue, this is a production which seems rather stretched at times, with the actors often reaching to be heard and posturing a little too overtly in sometimes uncomfortably blocked passages of action. It is still terribly funny though, peppered as it is with recognisable witticisms from arguably England’s most diverting writer and as comedic arrow after arrow zings out from the stage, it cannot be denied that it is a very enjoyable evening.

Algernon (Algy) Moncrieff and John (Jack) Worthington are two young men whom lead double lives, with Algy frequently escaping his responsibilities in town by going on imaginary visits to a sickly friend name Bunbury in the country and Jack taking on the liberating role of Ernest, his fictional wayward younger brother, whilst in town, to avoid the restricting seriousness that besets his role as Cecily Cardew’s guardian in the country. Through the appropriation of Jack’s cigarette case, and a rather awkwardly placed inscription from Cecily, Algy finds out Jack’s secret and intrigued by the idea of a beautiful young ward, hightails it off to the country in the persona of Ernest to woe the aforementioned beauty. Meanwhile, also under the persona of Ernest, Jack has wooing of his own to do being in love with Gwendolyn, Algy’s cousin and the formidable Lady Bracknell’s daughter. When Jack returns to the country to have his name officially changed to Ernest (Gwendolyn insisting that a man of any other name would not do) and when Gwendolyn follows suit all hell breaks loose, only to be resolved in perfectly proper British fashion with a fortune and a bit of gentlemanly blackmail.

Set against a backdrop of heavy weight contemporaries such as Ibsen and Chekhov, Wilde’s play is, as the great man put it himself, ‘quite nonsensical and has no serious interest’. A masterclass in form however, it has succeeded in rivalling these more serious works of theatre purely because although it contains very little substance, its style is so delightfully barbed, sparkling and clever that it is almost the very embodiment of ‘camp’ itself. Sincerity is replaced by theatricality, Victorian austerity is turned on its head into the frivolous world of ‘Bunburyism’ and no one plays into the established roles to which they should be bound (the woman are particularly strong willed and minded for the time, and Algernon and Jack are impossibly effeminate for such virulent heterosexuals).

The impish and jolly musicians who book end each Act add a kick to the proceedings but seem slightly out of place when compared to the rest of the show’s cool aesthetic, and the cast succeed in bringing out the beats within Wilde’s language, falling into a pleasantly melodic rhythm. But for all the shows inherent humour Brown’s production is a somewhat awkward affair, with most of the actors dwarfed by the vast staging, their microphones only highlighting how small they appear. Brown seems to have been stuck between a high class BBC dramatic acting style and a Tim Burton-esque design, appearing to have settled somewhere between a rock and a hard place. The show therefore neither nails the natural pointillism of the verse, or fully realises the heightened artifice of its commentary. Only Jo Herbert and Lucy Briggs Owen as Gwendolyn and Cecily are able to transcend this gap, bringing a delectable fluidity to their performances which marries both mannerism and nature; the poisonously polite scene upon their initial meeting being truly the best moment of the show.

A strangely and somewhat superficially amplified version of Wilde’s vertiginous masterpiece this is never-the-less an entertaining production which may feel unfulfilling at points but which reminds you why The Importance of Being Ernest is quite certainly the epitome of English farce. In a theatre scene flush with political works and worthy substance, for all his nonsense Wilde is clearly a playwright whose work should be taken very seriously indeed and the more flippantly done so the better.

Originally posted on The Public Reviews – The Importance of Being Earnest runs until 25 July 2009.

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