Can a play first performed in 1895 still be relevant today? Absolutely it can! Particularly when it’s a play by the witty Oscar Wilde. The Importance of Being Earnest is considered the pinnacle of Wilde’s talent. Shortly after its premiere his homosexuality was exposed, resulting in a prison sencentce and then exile in Paris. He wrote only a few letters and a poem after this experience. The play has been made into three films, most recently in 2002, an opera, and has been performed many times in the 120 years since it’s premiere.
The plot revolves around two men, Jack and Algernon, who utilise the alter-ego of Ernest while wooing two women who both claim to be only able to love a man with the name Ernest, and the ensuing tangle of deception and lies. The story ridicules Victorian sensibilities - to quote the play: “The shallow mask of manners” - and flips around the morals of the day. It takes pot-shots at gender roles, marriage, reputation, class, and the lies people tell to remain respectable.
Much of the humour of the play relies on puns and double meanings, most notably in the title – Earnest being both a name and the quality of diligent and sincere, which neither of the two ersatz Ernests possess. Director Liam Boardman has added another layer to this humour with clever stage direction. Faces that tell a different story to their voices. Actions and gestures behind backs. The audience could look at almost anyone on stage and be entertained.
In a piece of inspired gender-blind casting the lead role of Jack is played by Emma Pratt in her first ever DramaSoc production. Having Jack played by a woman suits the themes of flipping over morals and social mores. She makes a very good foil for Sam Doughty’s Algernon, an outstanding actor who performs with great physicality, brightly animating each scene whether he is speaking or in the background, often to hilarious effect. His performance is central to enlivening the play, which is set in living rooms with very little action. Emma’s Jack attempts by contrast to be less uncouth and more upright than his friend, conveniently forgetting his web of ungentlemanly lies.
The chemistry between Emma and Jade Lancaster, who plays love interest Gwendolyn, is palpable, an excellent casting choice. Jade, a clearly talented actor, plays Gwendolyn as a flirtatious young lady who obeys her mother only under protest. For example she flirts outrageously behind her mother’s back, getting Jack (whom she knows as Ernest), hot under the collar.
The rest of the cast was well-rounded. Jade and Stella Cheersmith as Cecily were particularly memorable in the tea and cake scene, both mastering the art of sounding civil while in fact slinging insults. It was Alex Carter who stole the show with her Mrs Doyle-inspired Miss Prism, governess and erstwhile authoress. Her expressive face and sozzled behaviour transformed the finale of the play from funny to hilarious.
My only quibble is that the performers’ voices didn’t always carry well, particularly Emma Pratt, who was quite softly spoken, and Alex Carter, who spoke in a very odd accent which I found hard to catch.
The intimate auditorium suits the play, as it has a cast of just nine. I liked the clever set design of set blocks that rotate to a new side for each setting. The costumes are stunning for an amateur production. They lend it quite some heft. On reading the programme I found they were supplied by Malthouse Costumes. Though the play was set in 1895 the team chose 1920’s clothes, which I enjoyed as they are far more exciting than Victorian fashion.
The uproarious laughter of the audience proves the perennial appeal of The Importance of Being Earnest. It was wonderful to witness the cast bring it to such effervescent life. Though written about upper-class Victorians, the audience last night found a lot to appreciate in the wit, the humour and the paradoxical twists of Wilde’s play. The scene, for example, where Jack and Algernon argue whilst stuffing their faces with muffins could have been written last week. I applaud Emma and Sam for performing it so well.
It’s hard not to be entertained by this production. Come for the wit, stay for the verve.