In Act II of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Gwendolen Fairfax states that, ‘in matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing’. This was most certainly not the case with this production, which can boast of both; Earnest was a well-designed and well-executed performance that brilliantly displayed the intelligence and hilarity of Wilde’s writing. Billed as ‘a trivial comedy for serious people’, this play certainly delivered in diverting my attention from my essays for two hilarious hours. The final performance sold out during the previous day, a testament not just to the enduring popularity of Wilde’s comedy of manners but also to the excellence of this particular production.
The Importance of Being Earnest follows the misadventures of Jack (Oliver Gilford) and Algernon (Arnie Birss) as they attempt to maintain alter egos to escape their obligations both in the town and in the country – with unexpected and hilarious results. The contrast between the two protagonists was well established from the outset, with Birss’ flamboyant use of tone and movement played off against Gilford’s more reserved style. Although on occasion it could be said that Gilford relied too heavily on the lines for humour, rather than on his delivery thereof, I feel his performance grew stronger over the course of the play, and his bickering with Birss over the muffins at the close of the second act received some of the loudest laughs of the evening. Birss’ portrayal of Algernon was assured and he used every line to its fullest effect; even when he was not the focus of the scene he was able to inject even more hilarity into the proceedings (such as his gesture of incredulity when he discovers his intended fiancée has ‘a hundred and thirty thousand pounds! And in the Funds’).
Indeed, every performer’s portrayal of their character showcased the strength of Wilde’s humour while imbuing the text with new interpretations and stage business. From the stealthy consumption of a cucumber sandwich by Algernon’s butler Lane (Michael Grieve) to Miss Prism (Fay Morrice) wishing that Earnest’s death will be a profitable lesson for him to Dr. Chasuble (Matthew Knapp) hurriedly flipping through his Bible to check if repentance can undo an act of folly, the cast’s performance left the audience in stiches. The scene between Gwendolen (Emma Taylor) and Cecily (Laura Francis) was an excellent example of both of the actresses’ fantastic understanding of their characters and the directors’ use of stage business to portray them. Taylor’s indignation and pride contrasted brilliantly with Francis’ excellent evocation both of Cecily’s childishness and her mischievous nature in protecting her supposed fiancée from a romantic entanglement. Gwendolen and Cecily’s discovery of Algernon and Jack’s true identities was another highlight of the evening.
Edie Deffebach’s Lady Bracknell was not as stately as I initially expected; she sported a comical, stilted walk, fidgeted with her walking stick, and relished phrases such as ‘I am glad to hear it’ – but Deffebach’s portrayal was all the better for it. Her reaction to Jack’s story of his ‘romantic origins’, especially in her gasp of ‘A handbag?’ was a refreshing change from the expected Dame Edith Evans-esque drawl. Credit here must be given to the directors, Cara Mahoney and Edward Fry for their superb use of the text; they gave scenes new life so that even those of us who have seen and studied the play before laughed in places both expected and surprising. Caroline Christie (set designer) and Shari Sharpe (costumes co-ordinator) must also be mentioned here in regards to the suitably extravagant costumes, which evoked the spirit of the characters (note here the amazingly frilly dresses of Gwendolen and Cecily!) and for such attention to detail in the clever dressing of the stage. From the chaise longue in Algernon’s flat to the swing in the country garden, each set wonderfully embodied both the period and essence of the play.
As Earnest is such a well-known play, it is very often easy for directors and actors to rely on Wilde’s humour to do their work for them. However, this production of The Importance of Being Earnest went above and beyond such uses of the text, providing both a faithful interpretation of the work and one which, with a fantastic cast and crew, took it to new heights as an earnest (sorry!) and entertaining evening – and a triumphant return of student theatre to the Byre stage. Now, about those cucumber sandwiches I was promised…?
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