DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

The Importance of Being Earnest – Northern Stage, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Reviewer: Anna Ambelez

Writer: Oscar Wilde

Director: Denzel Westley-Sanderson

A burst of musical, frivolously animated, choreographed (Tinovimbanashe Sibanda) action introducing the characters. The beginning sets an entertaining light hearted atmosphere. While there are many interesting tableaux in the production, there is not another witty section like the opening, which could possibly be employed when changing scenes to a greater degree, also giving continuity.

Performance is the central theme; John (Justice Ritchie) and Algernon (Abiola Owokoniran) lead double lives, pretending to be someone they are not, i.e. performing, not uncommon today. The first scene has Algernon painting, in a very modern style for the time, conversing with his butler Merriam, who also wittily plays Lane (Valentine Hanson), when his friend John arrives, then his aunt Lady Bracknell (Daniel Jacob) with his cousin Gwendolen (Adel James), Bracknell’s daughter. Jacob and David Suchet have successfully played Bracknell, in a frock, not problematic, but if Dr Chasuble (Anita Reynolds) speaks, acts and presents as a man, wearing a dress is at odds with that.

Marriage is a very important theme, paradoxical to Wilde’s own life. It is thought that the word ‘earnest’ was a Victorian word for ‘gay’. Algernon loves Cecily and John loves Gwendolen, but her mother has other ideas. Cecily’s governess Miss Prism (Joanne Henry) eventually clears the mystery of John’s origins. Westley-Sanderson’s direction is full of paradoxes, a hallmark of Wilde’s satirical style, also reflected in the production. Whilst obviously set in Victorian times, the very talented cast looking wonderful in their magnificently made (Elspeth Threadgold) period costumes (Jessica Hawley), with stunning wigs and hair (Laura Watson), set in a simple yet elegant Victorian setting, their conduct is at odds with this. If direction was aimed at being over the top and rather panto-esque, such as breaking the forth wall directing reactions to the audience, then it has succeeded.

Wilde is so quintessentially Victorian. John, unlike his elegant friend, has a rather ungainly walk incongruous for a Victorian gentleman. Rarely was a lady seen with just a parasol and no bag, she was also unlikely to produce a diary from her bosom. Whilst in private Victorians may be relaxed, would Gwendolen scream at her mother in company? Although Cecily slumping on a sofa with her feet up on the end shows her immaturity, society rules prevented this, albeit agitated action, such as bursting into a room in company can be amusing. It is not Victorian. The text is often insulting enough, not needing to be delivered so aggressively, especially by the ‘ladies’. Wilde devotees may find issues with some of the character’s behaviour.

Westley-Sanderson hopes the show “will make people think about rich black Victorians and their place in history”, paradoxically it may not attract the audience that is aimed at. First performed in 1895, in an age when black men occupied about 0.5% of managerial or official positions, when philosophers, playwrights and others wrote about social problems, social reform and Victorian social hypocrisy, hoping to make people think about social barriers, as does the director in this production.

A very interesting photographic exhibition accompanies the tour, marking Black History Month. It is a pity some of the most interesting photographs are very small, being cigarette card size. This is one of Wilde’s wittiest comedies – drama, parody and satire of Victorian social hypocrisy. Although this is a lovely, lively, exuberant production full of movement, music and mood it is not very reminiscent of Victorian society, especially as Wilde saw it.

Runs until 8th October 2022.

The Reviews Hub Score

Wild not Wilde

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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