11th October, 2016
Nikolai Foster’s production of The Importance Of Being Earnest is a fresh, modern interpretation that breaks free from the shackles of tradition and the ubiquity of Wilde’s most famous adages. This co-production with the Birmingham Rep skews a contemporary focus upon the play’s themes of identity, gender politics and societal perceptions.
Isla Shaw’s design adopts an haute-couture edge while maintaining a satirical eye upon the idiosyncrasies of the Victorian age. The fully mirrored set is visually stunning – praise must also go to Ben Cracknell’s lighting, which must have been a hell of a difficult job, but is achieved without any unwanted harshness and allows the set to seemingly illuminate itself. The prism of echoed and distorted reflections encapsulates the themes of identity and genteel appearance in the farcical romantic and hereditary mix-ups central to the plot. I was also rather amused by the way -intentional or not - that the mirrors warped the actors’ reflections, in some instances magnifying the characters’ heads along with their pretentions.
The reflection of the audience into the stage space realigns our focus on the societal issues at play and implicates us within Wilde’s satirical critique. We become representatives of the judgemental society to which women lie at the mercy of and are often thought of as commodities, both in Wilde’s time and today. Eyes, faces, bodies multiply in the prismic maze of glass and the reality that we are all (especially women) judged upon outward appearance. Our place in the world and mobility prospects often relies on navigating this myriad of internal perceptions and external deceptions. In a world of selfies, filters and snappy social interactions à la the cruelty of the ‘swipe left’ culture of tinder, Foster and Shaw have reconfigured Wilde for the Instagram age.
Conceptually brash, the sheer confidence in this gilded surface simplicity removes the production from the realms of gimmickry as Foster sticks to his guns, directing with an assuredness that complements Shaw’s boldness of vision. The ensemble gel nicely and appear to be having a blast. With an arch twinkle in his eye, Curve veteran Darren Bennet quietly steals many a scene in the dual roles of Merriman and Lane and I was especially impressed with the vitality of the young cast. Sharan Phull is gleeful as the idealistic Cecily and shares fine comic chemistry with Edward Franklin’s rakish Algernon and Martha Mackintosh’s precocious Gwendolen. The strained afternoon tea scene between the doubly duped girls presents a fantastically cringe-worthy microcosm of the drollness of genteel etiquette. Not to be outdone by the vigour of the youngsters, Cathy Tyson is a matriarchal force to be reckoned with as Lady Bracknell. She remains sympathetically humorous, uttering the aphorisms which have overshadowed the character, play, and even playwright for the past 100 years with a lightness that suggests little of the burden of bygone expectations.
The concept, and realisation, work harmoniously with, and pay due respect to Wilde’s text without being bogged down by it. Foster has succeeded in bringing a zesty freshness to a well-loved play; one which has arguably been previously confined by the stuffy consecration bestowed on such ‘classics’.
The Importance of Being Earnest runs at Curve, Leicester until 29th October.