I can’t quite believe this is the first production of The Importance of Being Earnest that I’ve seen, even though I’ve read it several times. One of Oscar Wilde’s most popular and successful plays, ‘Earnest’ is one of those pieces of theatre which zips along by itself, and in this production directed by Chris McKay, it shines and is a delight from start to finish.
Produced by Furies Theatre, who gave us an affecting Antigone last year, Wilde’s play is shifted from its original setting of the late-1890s to a slightly more recent 1920s world. The ever-reliable Rachel Scane provides a relatively simple set which is effective in its abstraction of the script’s locations – a table, four chairs, two windows, an armchair, and a bookcase are all that is needed to tell the story – while Matt Osbourne’s lighting is warm and congenial, well-suited to Wilde’s play.
There’s a youthfulness in the central performances of the ‘lovers’ which, while tending at times towards being overplayed, never descended into a kind of cartoony pantomime which is easy enough to do with a play such as this. Peter Bertoni brings a magnetic charisma to his John Worthing, while Peter-William Jamieson’s Algernon is endearing and tender. While Emilia Stubbs Grigoriou’s Gwendolen is charming, and Krystiann Dingas’ Cecily is naïve, both give strong performances and highlight a difference in attitude between the two young women. Amanda Maple-Brown’s Miss Prism is perhaps slightly too young, but she brings out a tenderness in the character which is often missing; Brendon Taylor’s Dr Chasuble is humble and well-meaning; Emily Pollard’s Lady Bracknell is less a gorgon than a concerned woman of some standing in society, and while there is no characteristic ‘a handbag!?’, there is the appropriate fierceness which every Lady Bracknell must have.
While none of Wilde’s humour is lost in the shift in settings, it serves to give the play a firm grounding in the changing societal expectations embodied by Lady Bracknell’s society-minded opinions on the one hand, and the four lovers’ open-mindedness on the other. Director McKay stages Wilde’s comedy with a flourish that plays up some of the more physical opportunities within the text, and manages to give us characters who we can see ourselves in – all too human, all too fallible. Currently playing at the Balmain Exchange Hotel, this ‘Earnest’ proves the importance of trusting the text and being, well, earnest.