Oscar Wilde is one of my favourite writers. His writing is witty, entertaining and immensely intelligent, which is why he is one of the greatest writers of all time. When the awesome officialtheatre.com gave me a chance to watch The Importance of Being Earnest at the Harold Pinter Theatre, I just couldn’t say no.
Wilde’s well known play opens with the charming Algernon Moncrieff (played charismatically by Nigel Havers), and friend John Worthing (Martin Jarvis) admitting to each other that they both make up personas in order to woo young women. When Worthing falls for Gwendolen Fairfax (Cherie Lunghi) and Moncrieff for Cecily Cardew (Christine Kavanagh), the two men soon realise the young women are actually interested in their alter egos. Cue hilarious mistaken identity antics and ridiculous puns.
What makes this production different is Simon Brett’s rewriting. Wilde’s play is framed within a modern setting, where The Bunbury Company of Players are rehearsing their amateur production of the play. I understand Brett’s line of thought here – the actors are older than the characters, so for it to make sense that they are playing younger people, the play would need some sort of reason for it. Except this is not necessary at all. The Importance of Being Earnest is a great piece of writing, so whether the actors are old or young, the humour and comedy is in the text, it just needs good direction and execution. No need to faff around trying to change it up.
I don’t want to be completely negative about the show though, because it did have great elements. For one, the actors were brilliant, which is no surprise. For me, the amazing Siân Phillips (who plays Lady Bracknell) was the star of the show. Her sophistication just oozes on stage, even as Lady Bracknell. She was actually so enjoyable to watch. I loved her balance of sternness, arrogance and comedy, it was just perfect.
The production is not for everyone, that’s for sure. The framing device was unnecessary in my opinion. The text doesn’t need to be rewritten, it is already a great piece of art. The actors are brilliant, and Lucy Bailey is an amazing director (her Shakespeare stuff is flawless), but for some reason the combination here just hasn’t worked. If you do go to see it, you’ll enjoy the acting, but that’s just about it.