The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People

Parramatta Riverside Theatre

7 February -18 March 2016

Reviewed by Nathan Lentern

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest:  A Trivial Comedy for Serious People ranks among literature’s finest. Outside of the Shakespearean canon, it is reproduced more often than any other stage play and its popularity continues to grow. When it opened back in in 1895, Wilde was at his most successful. The immediate success of Earnest propelled him to a hitherto unrealised stature within dramatic circles. Three short months later he was convicted of gross indecency, carted off to Reading Gaol and productions of Earnest were brought to an abrupt halt.

Wilde’s incarceration and demonisation would later transform him into an icon for homosexual martyrdom. Under cross examination, Wilde spoke defiantly of the “The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name”, inspiring his supporters and securing his conviction. Years later Earnest would be revived as the most iconic work of the most iconic of homosexuals. It is therefore something of a paradox that the play itself is the most meaningless thing that Wilde ever wrote. Wilde’s great supporter, rival and friend George Bernard Shaw, was unimpressed by Wilde’s final comedy. Scorning its triviality, Shaw told his readers that he was “amused but not moved” by Earnest.

Yet the enduring popularity of the Earnest in spite of this absence of any real content speaks to the calibre of wit and repartee contained within the plays dialogue. “Inspirational Quote” listicles are crammed with excerpts from this fabulous farce. The script is a true and comprehensive triumph of style over substance, reflecting Wilde’s aestheticist background.

With every character armed with such cutting and imaginative dialogue it falls to the director to select which roles will star and which will assume straighter, more supporting roles. The two most common choices for the show stealers are the imperious Lady Bracknell and the loveable scamp Algernon Moncrieff, but virtually all the characters are capable of dominating proceedings. Once I even saw the kindly Dr Chazubel manoeuvred into comedic lead with some very clever directing, although it did seem like a bit of waste of the other characters.

This particular incarnation of Earnest serves up a satisfying blend of the traditional and the ambitious. David Suchet’s Lady Bracknell was the dominant character as has been the case in all but one production of Earnest that I have seen. It was a safe decision, executed with enormous skill and yielded strong results.

However, joining Bracknell at centre stage is the criminally underutilised Cecily Cardew. Cecily is young, mischievous and fun loving. She is gifted with a caustic wit which she camouflages with her saccharine sweetness. She skips around lampooning her interlocutors to their face and leaves most of them none the wiser. She is also a vehicle for some of Wilde’s most brutal social commentary. Wilde uses Cecily to call out society’s infatuation with the depraved yet makes it palatable by couching it in her eccentric girlishness through dialogue such as “I have never met any really wicked person before, I am so frightened. I’m terrified he will look just like everyone else. Oh, he does.”

Cecily is one of Wilde’s most underrated characters so it was a source of excitement to realise that director Adrian Noble selected her as one of his stars. Such initial excitement was swiftly replaced by crushing disappointment at the realisation that Cecily’s eccentricities were to be accounted for with stupidity not guile. For the most part Cecily works adequately as an unintelligent character and many directors choose to go that route with her but she has so much more potential that more ambitious directors have on occasions drawn from to create something truly special.

The Importance of Being Earnest has two formidable witty female characters and it’s to his credit that Noble decided to structure the production around them, but he then casts one as a man in dress and reduces the other to a fatuous bimbo. While Suchet is masterful as Bracknell and a stupid Cecily still gets the laughs, I was left with a wistful sense of what might have been.

Imogen Doel’s portrayal of Cecily as excitable and stupid, while entertaining enough in itself, has the consequence of capping the comedic potential of others.  Scenes that could have been two clever and irreverent equals trading sublime banter were instead an educated womaniser making patronising barbs about his love interest’s lack of intelligence.

On a romantic level this changes the dynamic of the relationship significantly. Algernon’s visible lack of respect or admiration for Cecily’s mind renders his affection for her a purely aesthetic, and slightly lecherous one. In fact, Phillip Cumbus as Algernon is atypically uncouth. The narcissism of Wilde’s dandies, be them Algernon Moncrieff,  Lord Goring from An Ideal Husband, Cecil Graham in Lady Windermere’s Fan or Lord Illingworth in A Woman of No Importance, is made endurable by the faultless grace and suavity of the man in question. They are charming in every way which in turn makes the conceitedness somehow endearing.

Naturally every actor and director must bring his or her own interpretations to a character rather than merely attempt to imitate their predecessors. But in Cumbus’ case his representation of Algernon isn’t so much creative as just plain wrong. In this more rugged portrayal of Algernon, much of the charm is diminished and his arrogance made much less forgivable. In its defence, it facilitates a few laughs from the audience at Algernon’s lack of dignity. The audience chuckled at Algernon wiping his nose on his sleeve, eating a muffin right out of Jack’s hand and placing his feet up upon the table, but they were relatively minor laughs and opportunities for much greater laughs were traded away for them.

The acrimonious relationship between Gwendolyn Bracknell as Cecily also takes on a strange and less satisfying form due to the dumbing down of the latter. The famous “morning tea” scene in which the two young girls become steadily more vicious in their sardonic quips about the other is at its finest – a meeting of two supremely arrogant prejudices. A well to do city girl sneering at what she perceives to be a country yokel and a highly educated member of the landed gentry scorning what she perceives to be a stuffy and close minded philistine. Instead, Cecily is robbed of all her stature and prejudices and we merely get a smart girl taking swipes at a dumb girl. When Cecily gets her chance to deliver her eviscerating retorts such as:

GWENDOLYN: Are there many interesting walks in the vicinity, Miss Cardew?

CECILY: Oh! yes! a great many. From the top of one of the hills quite close one can see five counties.

GWENDOLYN: Five counties! I don’t think I should like that; I hate crowds.

CECILY: [Sweetly.] I suppose that is why you live in town?

They seem jarring and out of place. As it does with Algernon, this also robs Gwendolyn of much of her comic flair. Though Emily Barber’s portrayal is that of the classical lofty, pretentious heiress, and executed with aplomb, she is not so convincing without a sassy Cecily or the traditionally incorrigible Algernon provoking her. Her smouldering fury at Cecily’s impudence doesn’t quite ring true when Cecily herself appears to lack the guile to deliberately cause any real offence.

Michael Benz is the show’s highlight. A relatively conservative portrayal of the bossy and serious respectable gentleman. This is the ideal way in which to portray Jack. He serves more as a straight man to the comic foils of Lady Bracknell and Algernon so is best portrayed as a genial and sensible man. For good measure, Benz has thrown in a few hints of neurosis which add an extra comic bite to some of his dialogue, especially in his flirty exchanges with Gwendolyn who is a somewhat subdued character when contrasted to Lady Bracknell, Algernon and Cecily.

Michelle Dotrice and Richard O’Callaghan execute the supporting roles of Dr Chazubel and Mrs Prism without difficulty. The stupid and gullible members of Jack’s staff can be relied upon to drop an inane utterance at precisely the most frustrating time for their employer.

The true hero of the performance is David Suchet as Lady Bracknell. Call it the “x-factor” or “je ne sais quoi”, his complete immersion in the character was both hilarious and mesmerising. His ability to illicit barrels of laughter with as little as a cocked eyebrow or a slight stiffening of posture was the work of a truly great artist and has the audience spellbound. And yet, one can’t help but wonder how much funnier still her interactions with her disgraceful nephew might have been if only he had the infuriating charisma of other Algernons.

All in all this was a disappointing version of Earnest. It was entertaining, but then it is the most popular comic script in the world. Two central characters were interpreted poorly and they rippled unhelpfully into almost every other character’s dialogue. The rousing effort from Suchet alone saves this production from being a failure.

Nathan Lentern is a writer and performer.