I wonder what Oscar Wilde would have thought of seeing his iconic comedy of aristocratic Victorian society, The Importance of Being Earnest, performed and deconstructed by two British-African women, with a distinctly flippant approach to theatrical formality. I imagine he would have been horrified to see his refined, hypocritical characters farmed out to whichever members of that vulgar institution known as the public happened to be sat in the front row. I can’t help but think he’d have been watching through his fingers as the crucial handbag and army lists are replaced by Siri and a Sports Direct bag. Most of all, I’m fairly sure he wouldn’t have had as much fun as I and the rest of the audience did.
Co-directors Arne Pohlmeier and Tonderai Munyevu’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest is certainly an apt choice for their irreverent exploration of identities, theatrically contrived and otherwise. From the very beginning of Ayesha Casely-Hayford and Kudzanayi Chiwawa’s energetic, playful performance, the drama’s constructedness is placed centre-stage as the pair’s first act is to assemble the minimalistic set. They then explain in a mock-formal introduction how they will take on the roles of all nine characters, with a quip on whether this is visionary or cost-cutting lampooning the ever-popular directorial attempts to reduce cast numbers to a minimum.
Throughout the performance a constant dialogue is maintained between the impressive range of distinctively-portrayed characters and the actors’ own on-stage personae, adding a comical extra layer to the play’s themes of disguise and identity. The outstandingly expressive Chiwawa, in particular, assumes a broad pantheon of characters with effortless aplomb.
The exaggerated farce all this creates is often used to excellent comic effect during discussions of who will play which part for a particular scene and bathetically intrusive stage directions. This carries with it more than a whiff of pantomime which, although not out of place, does at times feel slightly overcooked, whilst some of the interruptions – “That’s how you get the girls” – feel a little jarring rather than funny. Indeed, the central fact of the all-women (both-women?) cast aside, gender is one element the parodic stereotyping leaves largely unexplored.
One of the production’s great successes is the welcoming atmosphere fostered by its innovative, mischievous inclusion of the audience to provide everything from countryside soundscapes to on-stage characters in scenes requiring more than two parts. The whole theatre remains brightly lit throughout and the fourth wall is not so much broken down as instantly demolished with gleeful abandon, shortly followed by the third, second and first walls and probably the roof as well. Even when lines are forgotten, understandably given such a whirlingly capricious script, this is used to add to the sense of informality – “I remembered the line!” – that invites the audience so Earnestly to add our own character to this new retelling of the classic story.
Indeed, this is a production that places inclusivity at the heart of everything it does, using Wilde’s light-hearted disguises to explore the identities overlooked in such an assiduously exclusive text. The famous Miss Prism/misprision pun is shrewdly subverted by foregrounding ‘the failure to appreciate the value or identity of someone’ as a further definition, whilst the two actors highlight their own personal identities throughout.
When Zimbabwean-born Chiwawa jubilantly suggests her “ancestors are here” to help her triumph in a moment of conflict, we reconsider whether Lady Bracknell’s obsession with heritage should be so lightly disregarded after all. Unlike Lady Bracknell, however, this warm, fresh, impishly funny, if occasionally disjointed, production, unapologetically revels in rejecting the suggestion that someone’s background should have anything to do with their Worthi(ng)ness.
The Importance of Being Earnest is playing until 16 March. For more information and tickets, visit the Tara Theatre website.