Melissa Blease reviews Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, on at Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday 3 March
“You don’t seem to realise, that in married life three is company and two is none.”
“All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That is his.”
“The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!”
A mere ten minutes into the first act of The Importance of Being Earnest, it’s easy to start wondering if Oscar Wilde penned the witticisms first and then came up with a plot to weave them around. Indeed, the actual plot is little more than an unlikely farce (an adopted boy, found in a handbag as a baby on Victoria Station – now grown up – must convince his prospective fiancee’s mother of his suitability as a son-in-law). In the hands of a less erudite playwright, it’s more of a soap opera than scintillating theatrical tour-de-force. But with Oscar in charge of the script, characters and social commentary, it becomes a wonderfully wild wordplay wing-ding, and never more so than in this current revival.
123 years and two weeks on from when the play that was to become Wilde’s most enduringly popular work premiered in London, the Original Theatre Company are touring a production that’s undoubtedly one of the best versions to grace UK stages.
Gabriella Slade’s intricate art nouveau-themed sets and a lavish array of striking period costumes turn the tiniest details of every scene into an indulgent feast for the senses from the get-go. Thomas Howes and Peter Sandys-Clarke create an utterly divine double-act as frivolous fop Algernon and his slightly more pensive cohort Jack respectively. As the drama gathers pace, and the duo are forced to wrangle with all manner of absurd situations, their on-stage rapport goes from strength to strength.
Kerry Ellis is a simply gorgeous as Jack’s sophisticated, pretentious heart’s desire Gwendolen; Louise Coulthard is cleverly charming as Algernon’s sweetly spiky sweetheart Cecily; Susan Penhaligon is a delightfully dotty, eccentrically characterful Miss Prism.
But we all know which character wears the trousers beneath those fabulously extravagant bustles when it comes to the fate of our lovestruck young couples… and Gwen Taylor is a deliciously droll, tremendously tyrannical Lady Bracknell who could teach a few things to all those who have carried the mantle before her.
Lady Bracknell is the ultimate symbol of Victorian upper-class piousness: repressed and oppressive; arrogant and self-righteous. And yet, Taylor allows less brittle, lesser-spotted, almost playful aspects of this iconic character’s personality to permeate her friable emotional armour. While this particular Bracknell couldn’t be described as humane, she’s most certainly more human that previous incarnations – and all the more believably formidable for it.
And ultimately, humanity lies at the core of a play that Wilde originally subtitled A Serious Comedy for Trivial People and then changed to A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, based on his notion that falsehoods were pretty much all that kept polite society polite. As a result, it’s a fabulously farcical, super-fast, supremely witty denunciation of the social and cultural strictures of late 19th century society that remain as relevant, fresh and captivating today as it was 123 years ago.
If it was a handbag (hah!), The Importance of Being Earnest could be, depending on your taste-budget, the quintessentially British, ‘sophisticated’ status symbol the Smythson Panama or a bang-on-trend Smythson-ish fake from Primark, accessible to all. As Gwendolen says: “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing”.
But this production is both stylish and sincere, in equal measure – it’s a matter of grave importance to be earnest in regard to just how first-class this production is.