It is always somewhat controversial when a production takes a classical, and daresay canonical, piece of drama and alters the text significantly. Countless classical stage plays are updated, reimagined and set in far-flung locations from originally whence they came. When such dramatic changes occur, the production will be accosted with question after question—it must have the answers within the framework. The actors and directors cannot account for it. The production must necessitate such change.
Lucy Bailey directs this latest revival of Oscar Wilde’s most famous comedy The Importance of Being Earnest with additional material written by Simon Brett. The Victorian comedy is kept as is, but shoved into the meta-dramatic device of ‘the play within a play’; a hybrid between Noises Off and The Importance of Being Earnest, that just happens to feature a cast that is well beyond the appropriate years for the male and female leads.
The play is kept in tact, but there are added characters that comprise the Bunbury Company of Players (the namesake being Algernon’s invalid friend)—an am-dram group of upper-middle class actors who live outside London. The company themselves are reviving this very production, one they did five years ago. The play opens up on the actors hurriedly trying to get the stage set for their last rehearsal with seamstresses and stage managers rushing in and out.
The added dialogue does not hinder the original production, but allows this device to remain tactful and possible. The characters in the modern day bring laughs with the politics of rehearsals, diva moments and the delicacies of having married couples in the same production.
For Bailey to pull off such an adaptation it would not have worked without the superb cast, whose real life relationships fit this meta-dramatic device. Nigel Havers (Algernon) and Martin Jarvis (John) famously co-starred in the National’s 1982 production of The Importance. Jarvis’ wife Rosalind Ayres’ sweet interpretation of Miss Prism plays wonderfully against the more histrionic and comedic females. Sian Phillips’ Lady Bracknell hits all the right notes in a master class of Wildean comedy. Cherie Lunghi (Gwendolyn) and Christine Kavanagh (Cecily) bring such youth and frivolity to these women even if playing against their age.
This, perhaps, is not a deeply rich interpretation or reimigination as say Peter Brook’s groundbreaking Midsummer Night’s Dream. But, Bailey’s is a humorous approach and finds parallels to the modern age. Like Wilde’s world of the aesthete there is a smart commentary on the upper-middle class of this day and age—one that has the luxury of putting on a costumed drama for no profit simply because they like to act, to have pretty things, and they enjoyed the production of five years earlier. Wilde famously subtitled the play A Trivial Comedy for Serious People. Perhaps, that is what saves this production from gross examination. It forgives the audience of being too serious and too precious about classical drama.
The adage ‘art for art’s sake’ rings as a loud truth in this production. Bailey wanted a means to justify using older actors and enlisted Brett to add the necessary framework. It works, it might not be a brilliant or maverick idea, but it produces the necessary effect—and as an art piece does not need to be didactic. As for Wilde, he might appreciate this update that still allows the production to poke fun at the middle and upper classes, just as his original so brilliantly did.
The Importance of Being Earnest is playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 20 September. For more information and tickets, see the ATG Tickets website. Photo by Tristram Kenton.