The Importance of Being Earnest
Old Wardour Castle, 23rd June 2010
For a quintessentially English experience, what could be better than picnicking in the grounds of a derelict 14th century castle while watching Oscar Wilde’s most famous play?
Add such elements as a balmy summer’s evening in the heart of the Wiltshire countryside and we are entering theatrical heaven.
Rain or Shine Theatre Company has cornered the market in this genre, presenting yet another of its classic productions in idyllic surroundings.
A simplistic set is adapted throughout the performance with graceful ease, the diction of the strong cast dominating the accompanying twitters and bleats of the local wildlife.
Wilde’s wit is ably complemented by the spirit conveyed here, evoking a warm period atmosphere which translates effortlessly into the 21st century. The colourful characters, thrown together in farcical set pieces, gain most strength from the series of double acts for which the play is renowned. The sharp interplay between James Reynard’s Jack and Rob Leetham’s Algernon crackles with humour. Likewise Claire Tucker, as a deceptively simpering Cecily and Pippa Meekings, as a haughty Gwendolen, complete with her “vibrations”, who portray a delightfully spicy conflict of interests.
Hilary Derrett, as the formidable Lady Bracknell, shines as she puts her own stamp on the legendary “handbag” line. Alec Gray, in a triple role, and Jayne Lloyd as Miss Prism both ice the cake with entertaining characterisations.
So what exactly did Wilde really mean by “Bunburying”? I guess we will never know for sure, but in this interpretation subterfuge would be hard pressed to bring more joy.
If you love theatre then don’t miss Rain or Shine’s latest production of Oscar Wilde’s classic ‘The Importance of Being Earnest.’ They are touring throughout the summer and what better entertainment could there be to accompany your midsummer picnic? Light as a meringue, yet deep as the earth, Wilde’s genius is a vivid today as a century ago. The play ages not at all.
As with all Rain or Shine productions, the pace is fast, the acting bold, the costumes extravagant, the staging witty and the direction deft. You are promised a treat and take away the memory of a treat and a half.
Moreover, as with all their shows, you, the audience, are part of the production. The wind that blows on the actors faces blows on yours as well. The rain....... well, this time we were in a marquee! Five minutes into the performance a storm of tropical proportions broke above our heads. Jack’s exchange with Gwendolen about the weather "Pray don’t talk to me about the weather, Mr Worthing......" took on vivid new meaning.
Yet, it is hard to watch a performance of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ - even one as true as this to the buoyant fripperies of the times - without being reminded of the sadness and despair from which Oscar Wilde constructed this lightest and most intelligent of comedies.
He had had a cruel interview with Lady Queensberry, the mother of his lover Lord Alfred Douglas; Lord Queensbury arrived on the first night of the show with the aim of pelting Wilde with vegetables as he took his bow. Fortunately, he was denied entry. As Wilde rapidly descended into social disgrace the show was pulled after only 83 performances. As Lady Queensberry lived in Bracknell, her transmutation into Aunt Augusta (Lady Bracknell) must have been yet another aggravation for the family.
So this is a play of savage contrasts. Wilde takes accepted wisdom and gives us the reverse. For each Victorian value - thrift, hard work, respectability, gravitas, his characters find a reason to do (or be) the opposite. We can laugh now at Wilde’s pricking of Victorian pomposity, but a hundred years ago some of the lines must have been close to the bone.
But ‘Earnest’ is also a play about identity, about trying to escape fate by pretending to be who we aren’t. “All women grow up to be like their mothers,” says Algernon. “That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.” Is there a hint in the James Reynard’s direction that Pippa Meekings' Gwendolen is fast following in Aunt Augusta’s footsteps? I think so.
She, it has to be said, is not your traditional Aunt Augusta, though she shakes her walking stick in a manner to make the stoutest of hearts quiver. Hilary Derrett plays her as an intelligent matriarch who carries pencil and paper and who uses etiquette simply as it may suit.
The play has many memorable lines - lines that have entered the collective memory as vividly as any Shakespearian quip: ‘the truth is rarely pure and never simple;’ ‘to lose one parent, Mr Worthing, might be described as a misfortune.......’ and, of course, the totemic ‘a handbag!?’ (Edith Evans once said that she started that line by clenching the buttocks!).
Ah - the handbag! The one ‘point faible,’ I’m afraid, unless it was some substitute handbag that had made an accidental appearance at Bryn Garw. It seemed more of a briefcase and certainly not something within which to deposit an infant, even one asleep at the time. Surely, Miss Prism would have been carrying one of Mr Gladstone’s inventions, some voluminous carpet bag, especially to carry the manuscript pages of a three volume novel of ‘revolting sentimentality.’
Mmmm.. sounds rather intriguing - and like all missing manuscripts, I rather wonder what might have become of it, after it was found in that ‘remote corner of Bayswater?’
Still, clearly a five star show. Go see and enjoy!
Lancashire open-air theatre enthusiasts have a very varied and busy programme of performances, venues and companies to enjoy this summer. Rain or Shine launched it superbly at in Lytham St Annes with a well-paced and consistently funny performance of Oscar Wilde’s 1895 comedy.
Wilde’s mordant observations on men, women, marriage, education and politics prove still surprisingly contemporary. The cast, often in pairs, and a responsive audience both revel in the waspish wit. “I have no politics, I am a Liberal Democrat” is after all very 2010.
Director James Reynard underscores the one-liners with deft physical comedy and drives the play along himself effectively as Jack Worthing, a man with an unknown past. His well-paced dialogues with the clearly spoken Rob Leetham amuse throughout as the true identities of all the characters become progressively more uncertain.
Pippa Meekings, notably more assured year on year and 100 % expressive with eyes, gesture, voice and bearing, stands out, whilst Hilary Derrett makes a formidable and scheming Lady Bracknell.
Jayne Lloyd, a knowing Miss Prism, the versatile Alec Gray (butler, factotum and cleric) and Claire Tucker, as a somewhat arch Cecily Cardew, all bring their special comic talent to the party. Any company which can make the line ‘ Worthing is a seaside resort’ very funny are clearly right on their game.
The sunken leafy auditorium and a calm summer evening enhanced the exemplary diction and audibility. This was Rain or Shine’s 11th successive visit to Lytham and, for those attending their first open air performance, it was a brilliant introduction.
Lancashire Evening Post.
MUFFINS at ten paces, stylish period costumes, wayward watering cans and even a few topical jokes – there were some delightfully amusing moments in Rain or Shine’s hugely entertaining production of Oscar Wilde’s celebrated comedy of manners.
Despite their Providence-tempting name, the rain stayed away, and I watched enchanted from the hedge-fringed lawn of Sandford Lido beneath a clear blue evening sky. Singularly appropriate, methought, seeing how this play is set mostly at a manor house in Hertfordshire, although the intermittent cacophony of passing seagulls left me wondering if this was to be a double-bill featuring a well-known play by Chekov.
Meanwhile, there were plenty of effective pairings on stage, as director and leading man James Reynard commanded proceedings with a flourish, even steering it at times dangerously close to slapstick, music hall and Aldwych farce. With Moncrieff and Worthing sparring eloquently, and matched for charisma by two swans a-swaggering Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew in feathery white attire, the cunning Reynard extracted all the moral idiosyncracies of late-Victorian England, as seen through Wilde’s irreverent gaze, where almost nothing was permissible without the consent of an ageing upper-class battleaxe, in this case the fire-breathing monstrosity Lady Bracknell. Hilary Derrett unpacked all the cantankerous snobbery of this formidable harridan, spitting contempt at anyone below the rank of stockbroker, as she swept imperiously through each scene, pencil and inspectorial notebook in hand. She was ably supported, by a robust, and enthusiastic cast, who delivered a masterclass in crystal-clear diction, ensuring that some of the most famous lines in English literature retain their capacity to raise chuckles well into this new century.
Rob Leetham excelled as excitable dandy Algernon Moncrieff, Claire Tucker imbued the demure Cecily with poise, charm and wide-eyed sparkle, while Pippa Meekings shone gracefully as the flirtatious, if hoity-toity, Gwendolen. Umpiring everything was the remarkably versatile Alec Gray who successfully juggled four roles as announcer, manservant Lane, gardener Merriman and lascivious cleric Canon Chusable.
On this warm midsummer night the mercury count on the comedy thermometer never dropped. This was an Earnest where the importance was on a readiness to laugh, and we did – heartily.