Thursday, July 09, 2009

The idea of Earnest

Is there anything more frightening than the idea of The Importance of Being Earnest in the Regents Park Open Air Theatre on a summer evening? This is to the upper-middle class of north-west London what a raging argument on Eastenders at Christmas is to those who watch television, a combination so predictable – formulaic, even – that you have to blink at its latest revival.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this – some combinations are hallowed by success – but it is deeply unimaginative. When presented with this lemon-lemon-lemon jackpot, you can only hope that they make lemonade.

Now, while Irina Brown’s production is not quite the radical Earnest the world is waiting for (I just long for the day when Lady Bracknell has a Cockney accent and Jack and Algie resemble Vladimir and Estragon), but it had sufficient thoughtful touches to make it a damn sight more interesting that one could reasonably expect.

For a play which is all about play-acting, you need something suitable metatheatrical, and starting off by having the cast examine the audience with monocles and opera glasses hit the right note. The giant curved mirror at the rear of the stage, constantly used for preening, neatly captured the idea of the characters examining and constructing themselves.

The homoeroticism of the play – it is, of course, an allegory for the secret double life of the Victorian homosexual – was brought out with the fight between Jack (Ryan Kiggell) and Algie (Dominic Tighe). Brown evidently did not feel the need to tame the play, but nor did she play it up quite as fully as the text itself suggests.

Had the performances been as imaginative as some of the hints of Brown’s direction, it would have been a very good evening as opposed to just quite an interesting one. Jack and Algie’s banter was utterly leaden, each line dropping to the floor with all the weight of expectation. The same can be said for Lady Bracknell (Susan Wooldridge), who in clearly trying to avoid the shadow of Edith Evans reduced ‘A handbag?’ to a mere nothing.

Jo Herbert as Gwendolen brought a wicked sexuality to the role, ramping up the innuendo and overt eroticism of the part. Instead of a virginal Gwendolen, this was a liberated, libidinous, even predatory Gwendolen, which lifted her above the rest.

Despite rain almost stopping play at one point, the evening recovered and ultimately proved that some clichés can be rescued.

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