Friday, 21 September 2012

The Importance of Being Earnest at Nottingham Playhouse

A Trivial Comedy for Serious People.  This play, probably the best known of all Wilde's work tells the story of two aristocratic men leading double lives and the lengths they'll go to to keep them separate.  Algernon, a self-obsessed bachelor is initially confused when his friend Ernest turns out to be named Jack- a country gent with a (make-believe) roguish brother named Earnest who lives a wild and wicked life in London.  Jack explains his motives for this duplicity.  A man may benefit from the pleasures of country and city life.  He may also avoid the boring or unpleasant responsibilities of either life, by quickly flitting to the other.  Algernon himself uses similar methods to avoid his demanding family gatherings, so kind of sees where Jack is coming from with this.

Jack and Algernon are pretty pleased with themselves for having pulled it off so far, whiskey before noon, going to the 'club' and generally being your typical Victorian bachelors.  Jack reveals his intention to propose to Algernon's beautiful cousin, Gwendolen.  Gwendolen accepts, as she "Could only love a man by the name of Earnest", despite the disapproval of her formidable and hilarious mama, Lady Bracknell.  A Lady's daughter cannot marry somebody of such low, luggage-room related heritage.
So what does Jack do now?  Is there any way that he can become Earnest? Afterall, the name does have "a music" to it, and how to produce the parentage that Lady Bracknell demands he trace?

Algernon meanwhile, is intrigued by the sound of Jack's country ward, Cecily and hatches a plan to make an unscheduled visit to Jack's country address, introducing himself as the wayward brother, Earnest.

Not wanting to give too much away there's an enjoyable sprint through mistaken identities, the institution of marriage and its various pitfalls and triumphs, farcical circumstances and a study in sheer human ridiculousness.  Hywel Morgan's Algernon is brilliantly laid-back and overindulged while Sam Callis' Jack is so uptight and worrisome that it's funny to just watch them sit next to each other.  Joanna Brookes plays formidable matriarch Lady Bracknell to perfection, silencing people with the merest of fingers, controlling their movements with the slightest of gestures-stealing every scene and drawing lots of laughter.  A proper Victorian battleaxe.

The set is brilliant- simple but effective.  One minute your outdoors, the next you're in a comfortable house.  Good sets always have a bit of a mind-boggling effect on me.  It's the ingenuity of the design- little things that contribute so much to the atmosphere of a play.  Many of Wilde's more famous quotes have been lifted straight from this play, so keep an ear out for them.  I promise they will be delivered with excellent comic timing and will raise lots of laughs.  It was a lively matinee that I attended, with spontaneous mid-scene applause.

My personal favourite scene is the first meeting of Gwendolyn and Cecily.  Each is truly delighted to make each other's acquaintance and predict they will be firm friends, until they believe themselves to be engaged to the same man.  Both men have told their ladies that their names are Earnest.  It's such a good send up of the politics and mind games involved in female relationships, and the passive aggressive one-up-(wo)man-ship that flows so easily when women detect a rival.  No wonder a lot of men are baffled by female behaviour.

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