By Oscar Wilde with additional material by Simon Brett Directed by Lucy Bailey Presented by the Richmond Theatre on 13 October 2014
The Importance of Being Earnest is known to elegantly lampoon the hypocrisies of a Victorian society and opens as two bachelors, the dependable John Worthing J.P. and upper class playboy Algernon Moncrieff, feel compelled to create different identities in order to pursue two eligible ladies Cecily Cardew and Gwendolyn Fairfax. The hilarious misadventures which result from their subterfuge; their brushes with the redoubtable Lady Bracknell and the uptight Miss Prism results in a plot that twists and fizzles with some of the finest dialogue to be found in theatre.
Not having read any reviews or programme notes, I had no idea that this was not going to be an altogether conventional production of Oscar Wilde’s great, final play. I settled into my seat, to admire William Dudley’s magnificent set design, which is a meticulous re-creation of a house built in the 1890s in the Arts and Craft style. The impression is one of exquisite opulence, tasteful luxury: there are images of peacocks set into a golden frieze, there’s stained glass, marquetry, elegant William Morris patterns everywhere. Oscar Wilde the aesthete would find himself very much at home here.
The first clue that something isn’t quite right is the presence of a theatre light on a balcony — fairly unobtrusive, but surely out of place? The second, definitive clue is Nigel Havers walking onstage as Algernon Moncrieff in a pair of 21st-century red trainers. His period costume is otherwise immaculate, and entirely in keeping with the overall design — only the garish footwear stand out as an affront to the aesthetic style so admired by the playwright.
In fact, this is Nigel Havers playing Richard (“Dicky”) Oldfield playing Algernon Moncrieff, and we are watching a rehearsal by the Bunbury Company of Players in George and Lavinia Spelman’s delightful house in the village of Morton St Cuthbert.
Oldfield has been a member of the Company for over thirty years, and has notched up several affairs with the female Players (still a cause of some upset, as one after another bursts into tears and has to dash from the stage). He complains that the music is supposed to stop before he comes on, and then pulls out a smartphone to take a call.
The framing device of the Bunbury Players is a playful conceit that takes the lid off theatre, giving us a brief glimpse of how it works, and how it sometimes doesn’t. A running gag is the presence (or absence) of the famous cucumber sandwiches: Oldfield complains that the plate is empty in the first scene, and is told to imagine their presence. He complains that he’s actually quite hungry:
What is it with actors and food?
When their absence is required in the Lady Bracknell scene, an assistant brings on a plate piled high with them.
In any other production, Martin Jarvis would be gloriously miscast as the 29-year-old John Worthing, but here, as Anthony Scottney, “the guiding spirit” behind the Bunbury Players and an amateur actor so versatile he can commandeer roles as diverse as John Proctor and Widow Twankey, he is perfect. In his programme essay, a brief history of the Players, Scottney is not afraid to compare the growing pains of his Company with those of the National Theatre, and, inevitably, he quotes “the immortal Bard” to illustrate the importance of “Bunburying” – the art of inventing characters whose “lights flicker for a few short nights on a stage and then are seen no more.”
Also revealed by the framing device are the ambitions and emotions that are usually safely tucked away backstage. The actors themselves, it seems, have lives of their own, and their own back stories. In a break, George opens a cabinet to reveal a television (again, a nice breaking of the illusion that we are in the 1890s), which he puts on to find the latest score in the Test match.
Even though this is his house, and even though his roles are the minor characters of Lane and Merriman, he admits he’s a little nervous:
I’m not really an actor.
Scottney reflects, with magisterial condescension:
That’s true of many who earn a living in the theatre.
There are prima donnas even in the provinces: Cherie Lunghi plays the confident Maria Clifford (imperious as Gwendolen Fairfax), who denies she’s put on weight (the costume must have shrunk):
It wasn’t like this when I worked at the National.
Siân Phillips is Lavinia Spelman, formidable grande dame and a founding member of the Company, who naturally takes the part of Lady Bracknell and fits it like a glove. She is practicing the handbag line when she first enters (and already has it nailed), and then switches smoothly out of character to issue orders to her husband (Phillips creates a subtle difference in delivery even though, in many respects, the characters of Lavinia and Lady Bracknell are identical).
The orderly chaos of a rehearsal is an excuse for some good old-fashioned physical comedy as the Assistant Stage Manager carries a ladder across stage, for no particular reason, pausing to swing it 180° so that the whole cast has to duck, swinging it back so they duck again.
When they do get down to business, these actors deliver highly polished performances. As rehearsals go, this one is very impressive, and even Scottney would have to admit we have caught his Company on a very good night. There is the occasional intrusion of the outside world: when Algernon sits down, still in his red trainers, an assistant brings in his slippers and pushes them under the chair from behind, in a forlorn attempt to be as unobtrusive as possible.
One problem with this kind of mucking around with a classic is the gulf in writing talent that is exposed. Almost as soon as we switch to the Wilde proper, the wit and the aphorisms begin to flow in abundance, beginning with Algernon’s reflections on romance:
I really don’t see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I believe. Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty.
Lane, Algernon’s manservant, enters:
You rang, sir?
The bell rings, after he’s delivered his line, pointing up how much we take timing for granted, how much it has to be worked out precisely.
Algernon makes one of the few cases for censorship that can be made:
Oh, it is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.
Only when the moralizers decide a book ought to be banned is our attention drawn to it, and our interest piqued.
Algernon is shocked by the behaviour of some married couples:
The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous. It looks so bad. It is simply washing one’s clean linen in public.
Maria Clifford is getting up to speed as Gwendolen, her energy and the tight dress causing a split, so that her artistic interpretation of character is compromised by the running repairs to her costume. She insists that she can only love Jack if his name is Ernest. He confirms, rather unnecessarily, that he knows his name is Ernest:
But supposing it was something else? Do you mean to say you couldn’t love me then?
Ah, that is clearly a metaphysical speculation, and like most metaphysical speculations has very little reference at all to the actual facts of real life, as we know them.
Gwendolen has less success with her mother, who is not impressed that she is engaged to Mr Worthing. Lady Bracknell informs her:
Pardon me, you are not engaged to any one. When you do become engaged to some one, I, or your father, should his health permit him, will inform you of the fact. An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be. It is hardly a matter that she could be allowed to arrange for herself.
Although we, and at least some of Wilde’s contemporary audience, think otherwise, the meddling of parents in their offsprings’ marriage is not an entirely cultural quirk: parents have invested a great deal in their children, in terms of genes and resources, and they (or rather their genes acting via human nature) want to see some results.
Lady Bracknell is prevailed upon to interview Jack as to his suitability (with “pencil and notebook in hand”):
I feel bound to tell you that you are not down on my list of eligible young men, although I have the same list as the dear Duchess of Bolton has. We work together, in fact.
One reason Jack is not on this list may be due to his fine head of grey hair and the fact he doesn’t — as played by Anthony Scottney — look a day under sixty.
Jack admits, after some hesitation, to knowing nothing, which is hugely satisfying to Lady Bracknell:
I am pleased to hear it. I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.
As for his politics, Jack is afraid he really hasn’t any:
I am a Liberal Unionist.
Lady Bracknell brushes this allegiance off:
Oh, they count as Tories. They dine with us. Or come in the evening, at any rate.
More perturbing is Jack’s following confession:
I don’t actually know who I am by birth. I was… well, I was found.
Lady Bracknell repeats the offending word:
Siân Phillips anticipates the “handbag” line and delivers this single syllable with magnificent emphasis.
Miss Prism primly chides her charge on the virtues of memory:
Memory, my dear Cecily, is the diary that we all carry about with us.
Cecily, remarkably, anticipates recent scientific research on false memory:
Yes, but it usually chronicles the things that have never happened, and couldn’t possibly have happened. I believe that memory is responsible for nearly all the three-volume novels that Mudie sends us.
It’s the kind of playful reference to the unreliability that Pinter couldn’t achieve in his Old Times.
Alone, free from the watchful eye of Miss Prism, Cecily (played by Christine Kavanagh as Ellen O’Brien) picks up several books in turn before throwing them back down on table in disgust:
Horrid Political Economy! Horrid Geography! Horrid, horrid German!
Upon picking up a copy of Fifty Shades of Gray, she is suddenly intrigued, and begins to take a great interest in it.
Algernon (passing himself off as Mr Ernest Worthing, Jack’s younger brother) defends himself against Cecily’s charge of wickedness in pretending to be other than he is (although she doesn’t yet know that he is not Mr Ernest Worthing. Cecily comes close to the truth:
If you are not, then you have certainly been deceiving us all in a very inexcusable manner. I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy.
Algernon has already admitted (to Jack) that he has invented an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury, so that he can go down into the country whenever he wants, and acquire an air altruism into the bargain.
In Lady Windermere’s Fan, Lord Darlington provocatively complains about how “so many conceited people go about Society pretending to be good” — this could apply to Algernon for earning social capital for his solicitous behaviour towards the invalid Bunbury.
Niall Buggy plays Fergus O’Brien (according to Scottney, one of those BWP actors — Better When Pissed), who plays the Rev Canon Chasuble. This clergyman is proud of his theological versatility:
My sermon on the meaning of the manna in the wilderness can be adapted to almost any occasion, joyful, or, as in the present case, distressing.
This, of course, tells us more about the vaporous nature of such musing, unanchored as they are to any reality other than the fiction inside the believer’s brain.
While Oldfield’s earlier, ostentatious wink at the audience was much to the disgust of Scottney, he reluctantly approves of the second, which signals the interval. After the interval, we find six of the Company (all men) crowded round the Test match on TV.
The Wildean scepticism regarding Chasuble’s ontology takes a different form as Cecily reveals to a startled Algernon that they have been engaged for some time, since the 14th of February last, in fact:
Worn out by your entire ignorance of my existence, I determined to end the matter one way or the other, and after a long struggle with myself I accepted you under this dear old tree here. The next day I bought this little ring in your name, and this is the little bangle with the true lover’s knot I promised you always to wear.
Cecily thus upstages both Bunburyists with this invention, which takes the biscuit for chutzpah. She needs all her confidence when she announces her engagement to Mr Ernest Worthing to Gwendolen, who imagines herself to be engaged to Mr Ernest Worthing:
My darling Cecily, I think there must be some slight error.
They proceed to have the most well-mannered and polite cat fight imaginable, although a cake knife is waved around in honour of the seriousness of the dispute. When they realize that a “gross deception has been practised” on both of them, they embrace and call each other “sister” in fulfilment of Algernon’s astute observation:
Women only do that when they have called each other a lot of other things first.
There is still the minor matter of Jack’s permission for Cecily to marry. He informs a now eager Lady Bracknell “that according to the terms of her grandfather’s will Miss Cardew does not come legally of age till she is thirty-five.” Since she is only eighteen, that means a long engagement. In most other respects, most women would be only too glad to be eighteen rather than thirty-five, but Cecily is impatient to be getting on with it. Lady Bracknell approves of her “making some slight alteration” in her age:
Indeed, no woman should ever be quite accurate about her age. It looks so calculating.
However, an addition of seventeen years is probably a step too far.
Lady Bracknell has a very positive opinion of this particular age:
Thirty- five is a very attractive age. London society is full of women of the very highest birth who have, of their own free choice, remained thirty-five for years. Lady Dumbleton is an instance in point. To my own knowledge she has been thirty-five ever since she arrived at the age of forty, which was many years ago now.
She has a less positive attitude towards argument, equivocating (probably unwittingly) between its meaning “quarrel” and its meaning “reasoned debate”:
This noise is extremely unpleasant. It sounds as if he was having an argument. I dislike arguments of any kind. They are always vulgar, and often convincing.
This Bunbury production is dedicated “with love and affection to the memory of Charles Le Pauillac.” The programme notes that Le Pauillac was one of the founding members, whose first play as director had to be abandoned “when he was suddenly called away on business.” This is undoubtedly a euphemism, as we learn that, eight years later, he returned to give a “strikingly vivid performance as the escaped convict Magwitch”.
The play’s subtitle is “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People” and Simon Brett’s additional material definitely veers towards the trivial side of the equation. The conceit is brilliantly accomplished in every detail, with the real actors brilliantly capturing the fake actors’ love of poses, gestures and leaps (the attention to detail goes all the way down to the typographical solecism of the shadow font used in one of the programme’s fake ads). Brett’s satire of a Home Counties drama group, however, and perhaps not surprisingly, pales besides Wilde’s satire of the aristocracy and late Victorian society. As a result, and despite a wonderful cast and Lucy Bailey’s direction, the overall effect is somewhat less than the sum of its parts.
Cast: Rosalind Ayres, Niall Buggy, Patrick Godfrey, Nigel Havers, Martin Jarvis, Christine Kavanagh, Cherie Lunghi and Siân Phillips
(See also The Importance of Being Earnest.)