The Importance of Being Earnest

Market Drayton Festival Centre    9 Sept 2018

The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece, was the fourth and final play in a season of his great Victorian social comedies streamed live from London’s Vaudeville Theatre. The beautifully crafted piece with its constant stream of aphorisms and witty dialogue held a large audience at the Festival Centre in a sustained chuckle from start to finish.

Algernon (Fehinti Balogun) and Jack (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd         photo by Marc Brenner

The two bachelor protagonists, Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff,  have respectively fallen in love with Gwendolen and Cecily, both of whom believe their man is called Earnest. They are determined to marry no one named otherwise. So it is a play with the search for identity at its centre. For our gender-focussed times this production gave it an extra wrapping of identity politics.

It opened with Algernon kissing a departing male friend beneath a painting of two naked men wrestling. And it ended with Jack, having just discovered that he was in fact christened Earnest, working his way round a crowded stage saying “I hardly know who I’m kissing.”

But the whole was taken at such a pace, there was little time for making heavy weather of the bisexual subtext. And if some thought it leaned a little too much towards a pantomime romp, I was not one of them.

When a buzzer announced an arrival at Algernon’s door he said “It can only be a creditor or my Aunt Augusta, who rings the bell in a Wagnerian manner.” In this production, Sophie Thompson as Lady Bracknell put something of Wagner’s Brünnhilde into the delivery of every line. And for me it worked a treat – never more so than in the two scenes in which she assessed the bachelors’ suitability as suitors in interviews of withering authority.

Lacy Bracknell (Sophie Thompson)                                                          photo by Marc Brenner

Pippa Nixon’s Gwendolen and Fiona Button’s Cecily fought their corners admirably throughout this hammed-up version. The former shivered deliciously to “the vibrations” conjured in her by the very name of Earnest; the latter crowed with mischievous agitation when she finally met her “thoroughly wicked” Earnest. Their verbal sparring when they thought their Earnests were one and the same became instant solidarity when they discovered that neither man was in fact an Earnest: “You will call me sister, will you not?”

Gwendolen (Pippa Nixon) and Cecily (Fiona Button)                              photo Marc Brenner

When Algernon told Jack with emphasis “It isn’t easy to be anything these days,” it was tempting to wonder if Michael Fentiman’s direction was trying a little too hard to make this great play ‘relevant’ for today. But however much manners and conventions may have changed since the 1890’s, human foibles remain instantly recognisable. The humour and cleverness with which Wilde exposed them shone through the contemporary wrapping most enjoyably.