The Importance of being Earnest

The Lyric Theatre presents 'The Importance of Being Earnest' by Oscar Wilde. Photo: Steffan Hill

The Lyric Theatre presents 'The Importance of Being Earnest' by Oscar Wilde. Photo: Steffan Hill

Some curious decisions are made in this new staging of The Importance of Being Earnest, one being the casting of two male actors in the parts of Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism. Why do that? What’s wrong with casting women? Are there serious artistic reasons for the decision? Or is it just a rather tawdry slice of pantomimic pandering to the lowest common denominator?

These questions buzzed around the bar of Belfast’s Lyric Theatre at the interval, to some extent detracting from what had in fact been a notably successful traversal of Act One. The keynote of Graham McLaren’s direction is one of freshness: this is emphatically not an Earnest which treats Wilde’s play as an extended quote-athon, telegraphing each witticism crudely as it hoves into vision on the horizon, then vamping blandly through the intervening dialogue in restless anticipation of the next one.

Photo: Steffan HillInstead we get an admirably natural approach to the exchanges between the characters, conversational not actorly, and beautifully paced throughout to allow the rhythmic subtleties of Wilde’s writing to register, the soft, feline elegance of the language to work its sensual magic at the point of performance. Patrick Moy’s Jack Worthing and Aaron McCusker’s Algernon Moncrieff benefit palpably from the relaxed naturalism McLaren encourages, emerging as sharply differentiated in character and motivation, where some productions lump them indistinguishably together as an irritatingly fey and foppish double-act.

Moy’s Jack is deliciously pent-up and irritable, easily baited by McCusker’s laddishly insouciant Algernon, whose explications of the joys of Bunburyism and crumpet-chomping are delectably articulated. The pair’s extended bout of horn-locking in Act Three is superbly negotiated, the verbal jousting striking comic sparks aplenty, but with an edge of genuine anger and annoyance also evident, reminding the audience that beneath the superficial posturing lie real, unrealised desires for emotional contact and reciprocity.

Reverting to the men-playing-women issue: what effect does it actually have on Wilde’s play, and on Graham McLaren’s production? It’s hard not to view the cross-casting as, ultimately, a bit of a gimmick. If it was meant to add laughter (of a relatively cheap variety), it didn’t: if anything, the confrontation between Jack and Paddy Scully’s Lady Bracknell in Act One flatlined comedically, somehow drained of spark by the distraction of a man in drag whose vocal delivery, for all its camped-up approximations of upper-class femininity, remained recognisably and disconcertingly masculine. For similar reasons the Act Three dénoument fails to fly, with Scully’s Bracknell again clogging the smooth unravelling of the action with a certain doggedness of approach in his/her delivery of the Wildean one-liners.

Richard Orr’s Miss Prism is a more suggestively nuanced performance, more convincingly feminine in his/her preening, pouting and parading in pursuit of Patrick Jenkins’ properly repressed and awkward Chasuble. But again, why bother? It’s impossible, as a spectator, to stop yourself assessing how convincingly Orr is impersonating a woman in his performance, and that diverts attention from the play in a way that is unhelpful without adding anything of genuine value to the production.

Photo: Steffan HillIt’s important to emphasise, however, that this is by and large a richly enjoyable Earnest. Both Melody Grove’s nervily overwrought Gwendolen and Ailish Symons’ kittenish Cecily are sharply observant (and in places very funny) pieces of acting, and Niall Cusack double-tasks impressively in servant mode as the phlegmatically deadpan Lane and the doddering, shambolic Merriman, milking humour, both verbal and visual, from parts that can easily seem nondescript.

Robin Peoples’ set revolves cleverly from Act One’s sparsely furnished drawing room with Beardsley panels, to reveal the pleasantly al fresco garden terrace where Acts Two and Three are situated. Costumes (again by Peoples) are broadly of the late Victorian period, which makes the choice of music crunchingly anachronistic: what are John Paul Young, Millie Small, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations and Chuck Berry doing on the show’s soundtrack? It’s an irritatingly voguish gesture, and another oddity.

The production’s quirks, however, are decisively outweighed by Graham McLaren’s evident belief in the ongoing relevance of Wilde’s most popular play, and his exceptionally clear-sighted exposition of its enduring themes and preoccupations. “We live in an age of surfaces”, observes Lady Bracknell at one point. We still do, and though McLaren’s staging certainly elicits laughter, it’s his ability to focus on why it is that surfaces matter in human behaviour, why we dissemble, conceal and often simply lie to one another, that makes this Earnest a must-see.

Terry Blain

  • Review
  • Theatre

The Importance of being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

7 June - 7 July, 2012

Produced by the Lyric Theatre
In the Lyric Theatre

Directed by Graham McLaren

Set/costume designer: Robin Peoples

Lighting designer: Kate Bonney

With: Niall Cusack, Melody Grove, Patrick Jenkins, Aaron McCusker, Patrick Moy, Richard Orr, Paddy Scully, Ailish Symons