One of Oscar Wilde’s greatest and most well-known achievements, The Importance of Being Earnest was written in 1894, performed only two months before his fall from grace and unjust punishment from a society we pretend is fully at arm’s length from our own. The character’s greatest worries of receiving bread over cake and their comical retreat from society thanks to Bunbury also reveal many undertones of dissonance, and unfortunate parallels to our own society can still be drawn these years later. The comedy focuses on the romantic pursuits of Jack Worthing and his, at times unwanted, friend Algernon Moncrieff.
Jack, under the alias of an imagined brother, Earnest, excuses himself away from the country and finds love for Miss Gwendolen Fairfax. To his dismay, Lady Bracknell will not let him marry her daughter because of his questionable heritage, found as a baby in a handbag at Victoria Station. Curiously, his protests that it was the Brighton line seem not to alter her opinion! When his mischievous friend Algernon arrives at his country home claiming to be Earnest, the brilliant confusion and series of events ensue. This production in three acts revealed a new set with each curtain-up, taking the audience from a townhouse to a country garden. Filled with the luxuries of the upper classes, the design, by Gabriella Slade, was excellent. The theatre was well sold with an enthusiastic audience keen to see this staple play, directed by Alastair Whatley for the Original Theatre Company.
Filled with the luxuries of the upper classes, the design, by Gabriella Slade, was excellent.
Jack says at one point, ‘you’re hardly serious enough,’ to Algernon. This seemed a reasonable judgement of the characters throughout the play. Admirably portrayed by the cast, writing of the characters seemed almost farcical. Surely the audience cannot be convinced by Jack’s affection towards Miss Fairfax, and even more so in the case of Algernon and Cecily who have only met once? These eccentric and almost unbelievable characters require a humorous engagement of the audience to laugh at their follies and successes, without deep involvement with the characters. Despite their larger-than-life characters, it is impossible not to see similarities to modern society. Although veiled in a guise of comedy, Lady Bracknell’s unrepentant snobbery and conceit are no less familiar to the audience of 2018. This performance by Gwen Taylor was particularly excellent, her words and opinions as fluctuating as quickly as the changeable status of those she interacted with. Her sudden transformation from reproach to the approval of Cecily, in light of her fortune, was particularly humorous, drawing a loud laugh from the audience.
Interestingly, the women in the play could be seen as the driving force, holding the men to account for their lies in unusual ways. Hannah Louise Howell as Gwendolyn captured the wryness of the character as she seemingly orchestrated Jack’s proposal. Louise Coulthard had the difficult task of playing a young and impetuous child of 18 that has been enamoured with a fictional man she has never met; this man became flesh as ‘Earnest’ under the pretention of Algernon. Her general silliness was set alongside an uncomfortably shrill tone at times; the cries and demands of a displeased teenager. Despite this, her obnoxiousness was rather infectious and worked incredibly well in dialogue with Gwendolyn Fairfax. Their initial judgement of each other as inferior was entertaining; Cecily believing herself the victor in exchanges of wit, whilst Gwendolyn revealed her looks of disdain and superiority to the girl’s behaviour to the audience.
Hannah Louise Howell as Gwendolyn captured the wryness of the character as she seemingly orchestrated Jack’s proposal.
Peter Sandys-Clarke, as Jack, and Thomas Howes, as Algernon, were an entertaining duo. Jack’s insistent seriousness in events so farcical provided the needed contrast to Algernon’s carefree and ‘Bunburying’ ways. By the end of the second act, it was becoming unclear why Jack would maintain his friendship with Algernon, yet this was suitably portrayed by the actors. Jack’s insistence on Algernon’s withdrawal became increasingly persistent and serious to the point of despair. Algernon’s disregard for obligations of any kind provided the motive for his staying, making him either seemingly unconcerned for the troubles of his friend, or at least overly confident in his plan which would see them both successful. A final mention must go to Susan Penhaligon in her role of Miss Prism; a character slightly apart from the goings-on of the city, yet displaying equal wit and orchestrating her own admirable pursuits of romance.
The Importance Of Being Earnest continues at York Theatre Royal until Saturday 21st April. For more information please visit the York Theatre Royal website.