Oscar Wilde’s plays are timeless classics, and have been making audiences laugh for well over a hundred years. Now, there’s a new tour of perhaps his greatest play, The Importance of Being Earnest, being mounted by the Bunbury Company of Players.
The Importance of Being Earnest brings us into the stuffy and positively posh world of late Victorian London, where reputation is everything. John Worthing, nicknamed Jack, leads a double life to escape such stuffiness, and when in London, assumes the identity of Ernest, a gentleman devoid of morals. Back in the country as John, he finds himself wanting to marry young lady Gwendolen Fairfax, but there’s a catch: she only wants to marry someone named Ernest. John is determined to be rechristened as Ernest, but when interviewed by Gwendolen’s terrifying mother Lady Bracknell, she’s disgusted to learn that he was abandoned as a child in a London train station – and doesn’t know his true identity. So follows a hilarious series of events that bring together a variety of characters and their relationships, and the timeless moral about being honest with yourself and those around you.
The Importance of Being Earnest is a funny play – there’s no disputing that. It’s got classic moments that always get laughs from an audience; but I think it’s fair to say that the play simply wouldn’t work in another environment. After all, the world and social climate of the play are entwined with the characters – take them away and all you’re left with is a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately, this is what’s happened with this production of Earnest. From the moment I saw ‘Additional material written by…’ in the programme, I had my doubts. Wilde’s plays don’t need any extra material or adjustments, especially since they’re so tightly written in the first place.
The set initially had me fooled; I thought it was going to be a standard production of the play in its original setting, thanks to the ornate features of the elegant abode that houses all of the action. Then, Nigel Havers as Algernon walks on in a pair of Nike trainers, and the ‘additional material’ surfaced. It became clear that the concept behind this production was the idea that the company performing it were actually rehearsing it in the head of the company’s front room. So, by adding in a few bits of dialogue to indicate this, along the lines of, “Right, we’ll be in the theatre tomorrow…” and “Where are the cucumber sandwiches? We need them in this scene!”, we’re no longer in the world of Wilde’s witty, greedy London. No, we’re now simply in a rehearsal of the scenes, which sets up the dynamic of a play like Noises Off. It would be different if the company pushed this concept further and showed the trials and tribulations of putting on a play, but they don’t. As a result, I was left feeling a little bit stranded.
Admittedly, the scenes from the play themselves weren’t badly acted. They weren’t mind blowing, but they were done well enough that we could clearly focus on Wilde’s comedic text. But sadly, these scenes were undermined by the whole concept. Had the company done without it, this production of Earnest would have been a decent amateur production of the play.
I left the Grand Opera House with a feeling of great disappointment. I really can’t understand why the company toyed with the text for the sake of ostensibly being ‘a bit different’. Plays like this don’t demand to be different – they demand a skilled, professional approach and, most importantly, respect.
The Importance of Being Earnest is at the Grand Opera House, York until . For more information and tickets, visit http://www.earnesttheplay.co.uk/