An unusual but not unique blog today with a set of thoughts based around (among other productions) a review of The Importance of being Ernest. This classic comedy is arguably Oscar Wilde’s true masterpiece and is currently playing for a relatively short run at the Vaudeville Theatre, London.
As a fan of this Wildian romp through Victorian social climbing I was desperately looking forward to seeing this production. With David Suchet and Michele Dotrice there was a promise which was almost always carried the risk of under delivering. However, in this case that was an unnecessary fear.
From the very first entrance on stage by Algernon Moncriefe, it was clear we were dealing with actors comfortable with large parts. The sets had been prepared with a conservative but effective attention to detail and simplicity but allowed a modern and witty directing style to keep the actors in a near permanent state of animation.
Whilst this was well received by the audience (and ultimately it’s bums on seats that count) I thought the amount of ‘business’ on stage might be slightly more than was called for by the original, rather more leisurely script. However, it made for both a bright and pacey first act which took us rushing to the first of the two intervals.
However, for a production which spent so much time focusing on detail and accuracy there were a few ‘liberties’ taken with the production apparently to make the play more palatable to modern audiences. Perhaps the most notable being the entrance of Audrey (a comedy foil) on stage riding a 1970’s style shopper cycle which although effective was certainly anachronistic. For anyone other than the purist (and perhaps not even all of them) this worked well and brought humour to an otherwise ‘hard going’ part of the play. However, for me it jarred, it was almost lazy, the easy way out.
Please don’t misunderstand me, the actors concerned were both excellent and unless Audrey snuck in the cycle as some elaborate ad-lib, were operating as directed. Presumably the addition was felt necessary to lighten the mood and make the scene more accessible to a modern audience? It’s simply that with so much attention to detail elsewhere this was almost patronising to the audience. Would a wooden wheel-barrow or a donkey or anything less out of time been an impossibility? Alternatively, why not in line skates or a moped?
My concerns, such as they existed were similar for the Importance of being Earnest. The text is certainly of it’s time and even dated in parts, but directors please note – 90 percent of the audience know this before they buy the tickets.
For my taste, the production fell just on the wrong side (at times) of pratfalls and farce. Again, it was clear why, to ma language more accessible, text less dense and to give multi-dimensional characterisation to characters who stretch the suspension of disbelief at times.
However, the amount of physical comedy from a cast who clearly could have achieved the same level of comedy from the beauty of the text was at times overdone for my liking – although many in the audience clearly loved it and didn’t share my concerns.
David Suchet’s Lady Bracknell was an amazingly subtle almost filmic tour de force of facial expressions and comedy timing. Having seen many others including Dame Maggie Smith and Edith Evans (albeit on film) he certainly found new space for this amazing character to live.
However, even here, (whether following direction or the actors wish not to ‘parrot’ Dame Edith), there was a singular choice which left me robbed of an old friend.
The best known line in the production is undoubtedly ‘A handbag?’ asked (usually incredulously) by Lady Bracknell on learning of the birthplace (or at least finding) or Jack Worthing.
Undoubtedly for the best of theatrical reasons, this was delivered not as a statement of shock or disbelief, but rather as a swallowed laugh. The only point in a spotless performance that I felt didn’t quite ring true.
So was I glad to have seen the performances? Absolutely. Did I enjoy them? Undoubtedly. My only appeal would be to Directors to trust their audiences to know the work they are about to watch or to be capable enough to endure the rough patches with the high emotional and performance peaks.
So much has been ‘dummed down’ in recent years that some of us seek out challenging, thought provoking and demanding theatre. Sometimes that also includes being reintroduced to an old friend who doesn’t need to have been subject to a ‘makeover’ or turned into pantomime. Be brave, be imaginative but remain true to the text and the spirit of the production.
Regrettably you are too late to see As you Like It, but if you get a chance to see The Importance of Being Earnest and tell me I know not of what I speak, I would thoroughly recommend you to do so. Two amazing shows.