The Importance of Being Earnest can be a tricky play to perform. Oscar Wilde’s satire of the Victorian upper classes is filled with dialogue deliberately meant to sound ridiculous and affected. The production must find a way to ensure the audience still buys into them as real (albeit trivial) characters. My own attempt for a high school drama exam fell flat. I could remember my lines and do the silly voice, but I failed to understand the character, and by extension what made him funny.
It was with some apprehension then that I attended Mermaids’ performance at the Union’s ‘StAge’ last week. Unfortunately as the play began, I was not immediately put at ease. While I am very fond of Earnest, I realised while watching the play that the writing is definitely weaker in the first act. There is a lot of dialogue and at times jokes were lost as the actors tried to plough through some of the more verbose lines. The highlight of the first act was the sequence in which Jack chases Algernon around the stage to retrieve his cigarette case. The lively and carefully choreographed direction injected a sudden burst of energy into the scene just when it was needed.
The next burst of energy in Act One came when Alec Csukai emerged as Lady Bracknell. Although there was inevitably a bit of indignant shrieking, Csukai’s best moments were the quieter ones. He nailed the calm imperiousness of Lady Bracknell, not just in his voice but in the way he held himself. Overall, I came to the end of the first act having enjoyed myself, but still with a few reservations.
Any worries were dispelled, however, as soon as the second act begun. From the beginning of Act Two the actors moved down into the empty space between the stage and the seating. The effect was to literally open up the production and let the audience in. With this newfound space, the actors were then able to execute the more memorable comic set pieces that come in the second half of the play. Ellie Hope and Flora Smith as Gwendolen and Cecily treated us to a delightfully vicious tea party, and Alex Wood played up Jack’s neurotic side as he suffered a nervous breakdown trying to deal with the antics of Rory Gill’s Algernon.
Directors Greta Kelly and Lorna Govan were also not afraid of playing around with the original text in Act Two. They added an urn for Jack when he returns home mourning the death of his fictional brother Earnest, making it all the more ridiculous when Algernon appears claiming to be Earnest. Kelly and Govan also inserted a brief musical number into the play, provoking the biggest laughs of the evening.
Out of the central cast, the stand out performance was undeniably Wood as Jack. Even in the play’s wordier sections, he was consistently able to bring every line to life. Often his facial expressions alone were enough to tell us everything about the character. Like so many great British comic heroes, Jack Worthing’s default mode is exasperation. Wood understood this perfectly and it provided the necessary balance to Gill’s supreme smugness as Algernon.
As for the minor characters, the budding romance between Miss Prism and Reverend Chasuble threatened to steal the show. Isobel Sinclair knew how to find the comedy in Miss Prism, playing up her flustered flirting with Timo Merchant’s equally awkward Chasuble. The two gave the best showcase for Wilde’s wordplay, as Chasuble spouted words he hoped sounded wise and Miss Prism hopelessly tried to imitate them. Finally, Wilf Wheatley rounded out the cast by playing both butlers, differentiated only by a moustache. The decision to have one actor for both parts was an ingenious one. Now the joke was no longer just about how butlers overlooked, but how actors playing butlers are overlooked. It was almost too perfect when Wheatley had to deal with his moustache falling off.
The production design had a difficult task with the given venue. Ultimately, it is impossible to suppress the fact you are in Club 601, and all the traumatic memories that entails. Fortunately, the early footage of London playing as the audience arrived went some way to invoking a more sophisticated time. The most impressive detail in the scenery was the two paintings of a garden for Act Two’s scenery. While they were relatively small canvases, details like this indicate the time and effort that help win over an audience.
The Importance of Being Earnest is a play about stuffy people, but it should not be seen as a stuffy play. Its sources for humour are still relatable today, whether it is dealing with a lie that has spun out of control or terrifying prospective in-laws. The cast and crew understood this, as was obvious from the steady stream of laughter from the audience. My own quibbles aside, Kelly and Govan’s production proved that everyone can enjoy Oscar Wilde.