As shrewdly commented by the prickly Lady Bracknell, “never speak disrespectfully of Society… only people who can’t get into it do that.” In Pan Productions’ version of The Importance of Being Earnest, this aphorism of societal belonging has never carried more weight: with a cast and creative team made up entirely of immigrants, the production is uniquely suited to explore how it feels to be asked who you are and where you are from. However, whilst the team goes some way to examine this idea, the production feels bogged down in unnecessary (and confusing) additions.
Oscar Wilde’s well-known play needs no introduction. Under Aylin Bozok’s direction, it is still the treasured tale of two friends employing fictitious identities to escape social obligations and marry their loves. Bozok draws a deliberate parallel between these two friends creating performative identities with the actors playing them, attempting to have Wilde’s classic text resonate with the modern migrant experience: much like how Algernon and Jack must create a character (Earnest) that fits the societal expectation of an “appropriate gentlemen” in order to court their love interests, so must the performers create new identities in order to exist within our modern society.
Indeed, the best moments of the production are reflections of this thematic goal: actors purposely mispronouncing heteronyms (“what a developmant!”) only to be playfully corrected, or absentmindedly delivering passages of the text in a foreign language instead of English. These light-hearted changes reinforce the farcical nature of Wilde’s play but also gently remind the audience of the realities these performers face, of having to assume a performative identity like Jack or Algernon. In these instances, Bozok offers an insightful and comedic commentary on the migrant experience, illustrating how the actors are weighed by similar societal obligations as the protagonists.
However, these effective choices are utterly lost in a sea of over-direction. Truly, it is as if the team has tasked themselves with emphasising each and every line, utilising extreme lighting cues, bouts of random physical theatre, and an omnipresent one-person Greek chorus (who seems perfectly content to spend most of her time miming dusting) to do so. Consequently, not only is the moment-to-moment pacing abysmal, but the production loses its sense of theme and purpose; if everything is emphasised, then nothing is. That important, central idea of performative identity in society is drowned out, unable to compete with the cacophony on stage.
Furthermore, the production is so tonally dissonant, barely resembling Wilde’s famous farcical tone. Oscillating from gothic horror with creepy tableaus and sinister bird calls, to surrealism with moments of mime, to even awkwardly pornographic with the characters groping each other and dry humping the floor, it’s a mess. It’s a tiring and hopeless experience trying to keep up, with each shift further confusing the production and moving it further away from its thematic centre.
Nevertheless, the actors bring a real joy to proceedings. Jack (Louis Pottier Arniaud) and Algernon (Duncan Rowe) sell their brotherly connection with gusto, and Ece Ozdemiroglu delivers a formidable Lady Bracknell, jeers and all. However, Glykeria Dimou as Cecily Cardew steals the show, bringing a modern likability to one of the more dated roles. Whatever else can be said about the failure of the production, it is evident at least the performers are having infectious fun.
(Also, it must be mentioned that for some unexplained reason, the play starts with the one-person Greek chorus reciting “to be or not to be” from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I can’t understand this in any way, I just felt like it should be noted).
The Importance of Being Earnest – Played by Immigrants is playing at the Tower Theatre until 18 January. For more information and tIckets, visit the Tower Theatre website.