There is often a misconception in theatre that when a classic play is performed, the purpose of its revival must be justified creatively. That is, there is often a self-imposed obligation to do something new, to ‘put a spin’ on the material. Sometimes this pays off, sometimes it does not; but sometimes, as in the case of the Harold Pinter Theatre’s Importance of Being Earnest, it fades pointlessly in the background – and thankfully so.
In this production directed by Lucy Bailey, the cast of Oscar Wilde comedy have become the Bunbury Company of Players. The original script is now a play within a play, and scenes are framed within the starts and ends of rehearsals. The strict social hierarchy of the play is overturned by the relationships behind the scenes: we learn, for instance, that the characters playing Lady Bracknell and the butler are married, and Algernon has had an affair with several of the female players.
For a moment, this playful device shines an interesting light on some of the play’s principal themes, such as the ‘role-play’ of social class and the pretence of manners. But by the second act, this device has vanished without trace, and this is where the pace finally picks up. We suddenly find ourselves watching a straight performance of Wilde’s play with a solid, funny cast, regardless of whether some of them (Cherie Lunghi, Nigel Havers, Martin Jarvis) are too old to play their characters. In fact, it ultimately feels as though the ‘am-dram’ backstory was a clumsy way of dressing this up.
One imagines that Sian Phillips is a prototype of Lady Bracknell: her shamelessly snobbish matriarch commands the stage with formidable energy and superlative wit. She delivers Wilde’s lines with an exquisite, unselfconscious relish, barking at her daughter: ‘Sit down. Sit down immediately. Hesitation of any kind is a sign of mental decay in the young, of physical weakness in the old.’ At 81, she shows signs of neither, and is alone worth coming to see.
Cherie Lunghi and Christine Kavanagh as Gwendolyn and Cecily also shine in their histrionic duel for Earnest’s affections. Their display of faux politesse before spiralling into a melodramatic showdown is amusing to watch, and the former is shown here to have inherited her mother’s sharp tongue. Martin Jarvis and Nigel Havers, reprising the roles of Jack and Algernon from the NT in 1982, give slightly faded performances a second time around, but they complete an otherwise amiable line-up of Britain’s favourite thespians.
This production of The Importance of Being Earnest might open on a dubious, unwelcome premise, but regains momentum when it fully embraces the source material. Die-hard fans of Wilde may take offence to these artistic liberties, but it’s still an enjoyable and entertaining evening. And if it’s in any way a memorable production, it’s because it teaches us a valuable lesson: don’t try and outsmart a playwright who doesn’t need meddling with.