I must admit to being a bit wary of going to see this production as the press release made it sound über-woke and I am getting a bit tired of classics being manipulated to reflect the attitudes of today, rather than the time in which they were written. As it turned out, this adaptation worked very well as the format of the piece, and the way in which it was handled, was probably nearer to the wishes of the author than the version he would have been allowed to present when it was first staged in 1895.
The press night was on Thursday, 8th September, 2022, a date which will go down in history as it marked the death of this country’s longest reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. They say that everyone knows where they were when they heard of the assassination of President Kennedy, I was in the Top Rank Bowling Alley on Kirkstall Road, where the Yorkshire Television Studios are now situated, when it was announced over the tannoy. I heard the news about the Queen’s demise on the top deck of the 36 bus into Leeds on my way to this play. Ironically the two emails I received on my phone both came from friends in the USA conveying their condolences.
The events of that evening obviously changed the mood and, on arrival at the theatre there was the feeling that perhaps the show would be cancelled but, after receiving guidance it went ahead. It was preceded by a statement read by James Brining, Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Leeds Playhouse, informing us that there would be a minute’s silence followed by the playing of the National Anthem and a five-minute break. I was greatly moved by the way in which the silence was observed and how every person I could see from my position stood for the anthem.
I remember seeing the 1952 film version on TV in the late 50s but I think I went off to do something else half way through as I found it a bit daft! The only bit I recall is, like many other people, the way that Dame Edith Evans shouted the phrase ‘A handbag?’ in such a frightening way. Actually the play is still daft, in fact the full title is The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People. It is based on a convoluted plot with a twist you could see coming halfway down the M1 but it was no less entertaining for that. Fortunately the farce element was kept in check with only a few silly walks and chases round the furniture spoiling the dialogue. Wilde’s legendary wit was delivered with the overacting it deserved, knowing glances to the audience after a line had been delivered to signal that it was supposed to be funny, but these were superfluous as it was obvious anyway. I would rather have this retro-signal that the Emperor’s New Clothes version in which there is a pause, accompanied by a look at the audience as if to say that the next line to be delivered is going to be witty and if you don’t laugh then you are thick.
The cast was entirely made up of black actors, and BSL interpreter, which changed the dynamic of the piece from the one I understood it to be. The two main leading men; Justice Ritchie as Jack Worthing, and Abiola Owokoniran as Algernon Moncrieff, were far too cool and so unlike the Jacob Rees-Mogg types I always associate with the play. There was one vignette in which, after receiving positive signals from their love interests; Gwendolen, Adele James; and Cecily, Phoebe Campbell, they indulged in an NFL touchdown type celebration with an elaborate hand-slapping routine. I doubt Mr Wilde had that in his stage directions. I also doubt that he would have foreseen a kiss between Miss Prism and Dr Chausuble, a male cleric in the original, when played by two females Joanne Henry and Anita Reynolds respectively.
The final two actors in the piece are; Valentine Hanson who plays both Merriman and Lane, the butlers to the two leading men; and Daniel Jacob, also known as drag artist Vinegar Strokes, who stopped just short of going the full pantomime dame, as Lady Bracknell. Sadly, the handbag line was delivered more sotto voce than glass shattering but the rest of their performance was bordering on thunderous.
The play was Directed by Denzel Westley-Sanderson who managed to combine the atmospheres of Victorian Society with current attitudes and behaviour without being in the least bit preachy. In fact I thought that he utilised the ‘less is more’ technique to such great effect that everything seemed plausible, if not normal – but there again it was not written to be normal in the first place. Farce is not my thing, neither is silly, but the actors played their roles with such conviction that, as I said before, it was daft not childishly stupid.
The effect was enhanced by Designer, Lily Arnold, whose sets were spot on. The interiors were a mixture of old and new with stuffy ancestral portraits on the walls but abstract paintings, Algernon’s creations, also on view, with one on an easel which he kept amending. The back wall was semi transparent so, when backlit, the action beyond the wall could be seen. The only hiccup was a pair of ceiling-to-floor heavy curtains which were used for entrances and exits, but were too long to fall closed when passed through so needed to be shut manually after each use.
The outdoor set was a garden, complete with large tree and small plot which was dug and mowed by Cecily when stressed. The costumes were also period, I must say that I am a fan of a well tailored suit and there were a couple of belters here, although Algernon’s country retreat outfit was loud enough to scare the horses.
This play is well worth seeing, especially if you need cheering up in these dark times.
The Importance of Being Earnest is a Leeds Playhouse, ETT and Rose Theatre Kingston co-production supported by a grant from The Royal Theatrical Support Trust. For more information and to buy tickets please go to https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/events/the-importance-of-being-earnest/