Writer: Oscar WIlde
Director: Lucy Bailey
Reviewer: Pete Benson
The Importance of Being Earnest is arguably the finest of Oscar Wilde’s plays. It is also unfortunately the last play he would ever write as on the opening night of the show a quarrel between Wilde and his lover Lord Alfred would eventually lead to court and the full might of the English legal system crushing Wilde beyond repair for the offence of being a practising homosexual.
This production of The Importance of Being Earnest has had a slight rewrite by Simon Brett making Wilde’s piece a play within a play. This is ostensibly to create a device whereby several older actors can get away with playing parts they are thirty some years too old to play. The conceit is that the production is a rehearsal by The Bunbury Players in the house of one of the play’s leading ladies.
The splendid sitting room of the house is recreated in meticulous detail by designer William Dudley and lit with a very naturalistic feel by Oliver Fenwick who gives us the impression of beautiful sunlight streaming into the space which gradually turns to dusk.
Although the fictional Bunbury Players may be amateurs the actual cast is a stellar ensemble of fine actors. The harridan matriarch, Lady Bracknell, is brilliantly portrayed by Sian Phillips who relishes in the character’s two-faced snobbish qualities. She makes this unpleasant manipulating woman believable and delightful. Nigel Havers and Martin Jarvis play the two young dilettantes of the piece, reprising rôles they both played in Peter Hall’s 1982 NT production.
The age of the two actors is hardly an issue, as one of the cast says, “Audiences hardly ever notice that sort of thing. It’s the illusion of the theatre.” Havers’ Algernon is played with a light touch. He is a playful character with a very youthful air about him. Jarvis’ John Worthing is a slightly more fraught volatile character who is also the director of the Bunbury Players, a rôle he occasionally steps into. Havers and Jarvis play together flawlessly as do Christine Kavanagh and Cherie Lunghi as the two women vying for the fictional Ernest’s affections. As the two of them confront each other over tea and cakes they have wonderful pace and timing and execute some fabulous physical comedy. Indeed, the age of the actors seems to add gravitas to Wilde’s dialogue at times.
It is a brave man who would dare to modify the work of one of the finest playwrights that lived. For most of the audience it seems to enhance the production but for some it is clearly an unwanted intrusion.
At times the pace of the dialogue is just a fraction too fast, perhaps in order to fit all the material into the modern obligatory two hour concentration span of an audience.
What is undeniable is that this is a strong cast of most excellent actors in a very strong production who bring sparkling life to Wilde’s fine words. The play is layered with, wit, mockery and cleverness right down to the pun in the title. I urge you to go and see Wilde’s masterpiece.
Photo: Tristram Kenton | Runs until 25th October 2014