Watermill - The Importance of Being Earnest
30th May to 21st July 2001.
This is from the NWN.
Simply, a matter of style
'THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST', at The Watermill Theatre, until July 21
'The Importance Of Being Earnest', Wilde's last play remains a favourite with audiences over a century later. It tells the tale of two rich young men jack and Algernon who find that it is "awfully hard work doing nothing".
To fill this void jack has invented an imaginary brother Ernest whom he uses as an excuse to escape from his dull country home in order to frolic in town. Algernon employs a
similar technique yet in reverse. His illusory ill friend Bunbury furnishes a convenient frequent method of disappearing to the country. However, such deceptions are never easy and they eventually lead to events that threaten future happiness with the respective lovers - Gwendolen and
Anita Carey is a potent and witty Lady Bracknell commanding the stage every time she appears. With
Algernon, she carries most of the weight of Wilde's verbal dexterity. In particular her confrontation with the rather staid and prim
Jack/Earnest (Duncan Wisbey) is a highlight in a slow first act.
Bracknell's parting words that she would never allow Gwendolen "brought up with the utmost care - to marry into a cloak-room, and form an alliance with a parcel?" are delivered with the exact majestic indignation required of the script.
Gwendolen (Kirsty Bushell) had the strength and severity of character that left no doubt that
Jack's comment that "all women become like their mothers" may perhaps become painful fact.
Her scene with Cecily in the far more satisfying second act again brought out the best of Wilde's
language with Rachel Ferjani's manipulative, yet immature, Cecily no match for the forthright caustic snob
Gwendolen. Clearly, Cecily finds a match in Algernon who Gareth Corke portrays with aristocratic absurdity and slight
Matthew Smith's direction, along with Fiona Marie Chiver's simple set, comfortably suited the confines of
the compact Watermill theatre working to both the audience's and the cast's advantage.
Overall, the production came together perfectly, highlighting why the play steeped in late Victorian society can still appeal to
a modern audience. It is, after all, Wilde's satirical interpretation of the age-old formula of the marriage plot yet twisting and turning in a world where "in matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing".
And this is Newbury Theatre's view.
Its nearly fifty years since the film of The Importance of Being Earnest came out (1952), but how difficult it is for directors, actors and theatregoers to shake off the impression the film has made. The Watermills production got off to a slow start. Gareth
Corke, as a rather camp Algernon, gave a convincing impression of a dissolute socialite, but Duncan Wisbey as Jack didnt have the assured confidence of the landed gentry, and the interplay between the two didnt really gel instead of coming across as the upper class equivalent of Men Behaving Badly, they seemed uneasy with each other. Anita Carey gave Lady Bracknell the necessary authority, although she seemed to have a slight northern accent at first, which disappeared as the play progressed. Kirsty Bushell played Gwendolen in a less sympathetic way than we are used to.
In Act II, the pace quickened, and the arrival of the three remaining characters provided the catalyst for some very funny action. Rachel Ferjani was particularly good as
Cecily, producing splendidly catty fireworks in her set-to with
Gwendolen. However, punching the air and mouthing Yes! when she secured Algernons affection got an easy laugh but was an anachronism that jarred. Stephanie Jacob was excellent as Miss Prism (almost to the extent of upstaging Lady
Bracknell), and Andy Wilby played the bemused Reverend Chasuble.
So, hit or miss? It was an enjoyable evening - it would be impossible not to enjoy Wildes splendid dialogue with plenty of laughs. I just wish I could get that damned film out of my mind.
Here's the Sunday Times view.
Matthew Smith's sharp, enjoyable production slips up a bit on points of style, and these do matter, because this is partly a play about style. Gartth Corke is a witty and attractive actor, but he takes no trouble to play Algy with a posh accent. Talking to Cecily (Rachel Ferjani), whom he has just met, he has his hands in his pockets most of the time. He also
wears his Chinese skullcap with a pom-pom on his trip to Hertfordshire.
You do not offer sherry to your butler, hold the glasses by their rim, pour it yourself and clink glasses with him. A decanter would have been desirable, rather than what looks like a beer bottle. The girls have a nice, edgy sense of humour, but they are played as resolutely middle-class.
Lady Bracknell (Anita Carey) is a middle-class firebrand, and her clothes are middle-class vulgar rather than upper-class vulgar. This play is an Irishman's parody of the English upper class; if you don't get the details right, you miss your target. Having said all that, I still
enjoyed the production: it has pace, sparkle, and a solemn-hilarious sense of humour.
The duel between Lady B and Jack (Duncan Wisbey) about Jack's social status is, as usual, a treat.