The Importance of Being Earnest at the Vaudeville Theatre: ‘most definitely a trivial play for serious people’
Concluding Classic Spring’s Oscar Wilde season as the sixth and final play, Michael Fentiman’s satirical production offers a glimpse into the author’s subversive Victorian lifestyle through its exploration of the relationship between social norms, truth-telling, and sexuality. In its last month at the Vaudeville Theatre, Marnie Howlett earnestly reviews this farcical masterpiece.
Under Dominic Dromgoole’s crafty artistic direction, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest unveils the anxieties that stem from living a double life in a society with a perceived high moral code. Reflecting its author’s own clever wit and covert rebelliousness, the play strikes a balance between triviality and seriousness that leaves you not only laughing at the absurd, but also questioning that which we accept as the truth. As this cunning piece so paradoxically reminds the audience time and time again: one’s perception is quite often victim to deception.
Set in the established British society of Wilde’s days, where homosexuality could not be freely expressed without public adversity and consequence, the production’s bisexual subtext impressively reveals the well-concealed truth of the time. Beginning with the opening scene, wherein Algernon Mongrief (Fehinti Balogun) shares a romantic goodbye kiss with a mysterious male lover, the play does not fall short on its (not subtle) sexual nuances. The tone is set by the large homoerotic oil painting in Algernon’s Victorian-style morning room—where the entire first act is situated—albeit the fact that it clashes with the era’s conservatism. It also only takes but a few kisses and intimate exchanges between Algernon and his elderly servant, Lane (Geoffrey Freshwater), to understand that much more is going on in their master-servant relationship. And while one might initially think that Algernon and Jack Worthing’s (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) friendship is entirely platonic, their flirtatious and almost erotic connection intensifies throughout the play as they repeatedly shove food into each other’s mouths.
Yet the play’s subdued sensuousness and lustful sensuality is not limited to the male characters. The most striking exemplification is the simple-yet-suggestive cigarette shared between Cecily (Fiona Button) and the gardener (Tim Gibson), as well as the carnal way Gwendolen (Pippa Nixon) pushes Jack’s head into her lap and prostates herself across Algernon’s grand piano. The sexually charged kiss between three of Jack’s female servants during the changing of a scene subtly, if almost melancholically, reminds the audience of the double lives many people were forced to live in order to achieve fulfillment.
But the furtive rebelliousness of The Importance does not stop at its sexual innuendos; the play’s epigrammatic and satirical nature allows it to both subtly and not so subtly mock the ruling class of the time. The characterization of Lady Bracknell (Sophie Thompson) as a snobby, aggressive, and controlling older woman weighed down by her unseen and invalided spouse undoubtedly follows from the author’s own less than positive experiences with the British aristocracy. In contrast to the other female leads (Gwendolen and Cecily), whose performances are light, naïve, and farcical, Bracknell is vividly portrayed as an unhappy socialite attempting to prevent her rollicking daughter from fleeing the nest (read: cage). While Thompson plays the role well, a great deal of credit is owed to Gabriella Slade for her exquisite costume designs, particularly that of Bracknell and Gwendolen. A review of this play would not be complete without also mentioning the incredibly aesthetic set designed by Madeleine Girling, and which leaves you almost convinced you have been transported back to Wilde’s Britain.
While Fentiman’s team mastered the Victorian-style, the play’s shortfall was that the acting, at times, distracted from Wilde’s witticism. Although The Importance offered a captivating social satire in a tangential world where normal rules do not apply, the quick exchanges, somewhat manic theatrics, and overemphasis on the characters’ sexual relations and Jack’s ‘handbag’ beginnings prevented the words from always being able to work. A fine example is Jack’s subversive observation that in a happy English marriage, three is company and two is none. This plot twist, combined with Gonet’s haunting performance, creates an aura of genuine suspense that offers a satisfying end to the boisterous piece.
With surprise, seriousness, and triviality, The Importance of Being Earnest’s three acts explore the search for identity in a very nontraditional and nonsensical way. In its last few weeks at the Vaudeville Theatre, this comedy will leave you on a quest for truth in realizing that no one is ever truly who they seem to be. In Wilde’s own words: ‘Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.’ Yet, as the show reveals in the closing minutes, the truth will also set you free.
The Importance of Being Earnest is at the Vaudeville Theatre until the 20thOctober, 2018.