Ernest still has that magic touch

More tea, Aunt Augusta?  Lady Bracknell (Nick Caldecott) with wayward nephew Algernon (Matthew Douglas) discussing the meaning of life - but only as she knows it - over the bone china and Lipton's finest

The Importance of Being Earnest

Birmingham Rep

The Old Rep

*****

THIS trivial comedy for serious people, as Oscar Wilde put it, has been delighting audiences for 116 years and the reasons for its enduring popularity are plain for all to see in this splendid Birmingham Rep production.

The play is running alongside Tom Stoppard's Travesties, which pays homage to Wilde's play, using exactly the same cast but whereas Travesties is clever, too clever by half some might add, an intellectual work out, Earnest is glorious wit, pure and simple.

The play is full of familiar quotes, known to people who have never even seen it, and you feel the audience is waiting expectantly for them in much the same way fans at a rock concert await greatest hits and the cast do not disappoint, delivering them with style and panache.

They are superb although it is a little disconcerting to find that Lady Bracknell is played by Nick Caldecott  who is . . . well . . . a bloke.

This is one of the most famous female comic roles in the theatre with probably the most famous actress to play the role was Dame Edith Evans in both the celebrated 1939 Sir John Gielgud production and the classic 1952 film. That being said it is not unknown for men to play her ladyship.

This is not Ernest meets Charley's Aunt though and in this case I suspect that it is not because director Philip Wilson would rather be doing Hairspray or that Nick  Cladecott is a closet Widow Twankey but is more to do with logistics.

The exactly the same cast idea runs into a slight problem of gender with Stoppard having eight characters, but only three of them women while Wilde's eight (the Rep doubled up on the manservants Lane and Merriman) has four females.

So one actor has to be . . . flexible and that turns out to be Caldecott who after a memorable portrayal of James Joyce in Travesties produces an even more memorable and imperious Aunt Augusta, the authoritarian Lady Bracknell.

Matthew Douglas as Algernon (Henry Garr in Travesties) puts in another solid shift as the idle, amoral, witty and charming bachelor living somewhat beyond his means in London while Tom Davey (Trisan Tzara in Travesties) as his best friend Jack has a range of facial expressions that were heaven sent for comedy.

The redoubtable Dame Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell, setting the superior and snobbish tone for all who were to follow

Both have a secret. Londoner Algy  has fictitious friend, Bunbury, who exists at death's door so needs to be visited whenever Algernon needs to get away or fancies a few days in the country while Jack, who lives in the country,  has a fictitious and hedonistic brother called Ernest he has to visit whenever he wants to go to London and indeed in London he is Ernest to all his friends.

It is even as his brother Ernest that he asks Lady Bracknell's daughter, Gwendolen, to marry him.

Emily Bowker (Gwen in Travesties) again shows admirable timing  and some beautiful comic touches as the demure daughter of the towering pillar of polite and proper society.

Lady Bracknell though has other ideas as she tries to maintain the standards and social graces and standings of the aristocracy which are picked with surgical precision by Wilde.

She came from little and married well and is determined her daughter will do the same and is left with a dilemma when she discovered Jack, or Ernest, has both income and property, a major plus, but his parentage is . . . a handbag left at Victoria Station which is not going to worry the compilers of Burke's Peerage. 

Meanwhile Emerald O'Hanrahan is again delightful as Jack's Ward  Cecily (the character with the same name in Travesties) as she is  pursued by Algernon who is pretending to be Ernest at Jack's county pile in Hertforshire and she agrees to marry him.

His appearance is a slight problem for Jack who then arrives in mourning for the death of his fictional brother who it turns out is alive and well and made flesh in the next room. Ooops, as they say.

SOMEWHAT STRAINED

So with both young ladies under the impression they are both engaged to Ernest, who doesn't actually exists, relations are somewhat strained when the pair sit down for that most gentile of English upper-crust pastimes – tea.

There was a priceless moment when  Cecily is happily  loading up Gwendolen's cup with sugar lumps, after she has told her, of course, that she does not take sugar – “it's not fashionable any more”- and one accidentally fell on the floor.

O'Hanrahan without a pause bent down, picked it up with the tongs, looked at it mischievously for a moment, then popped it in the cup along with the rest. You can't script quick wits like that.

Providing the tea, sandwiches and drinks is Giles Taylor as the dapper servant Lane in London and the more elderly retainer Merriman in the country (he was the manservant Bennett in Travesties) and who skilfully managed to garner laughs with just looks and pauses.

Then we have Mrs Prism, the rather nervous governess played by Abigail McKern (Nadya, Lenin's assistant in Travesties) who holds the guilty secret of the handbag, the key to the whole play. Watching her longingly is Roger Ringrose as the Rev Canon Chasuble, (he was Lenin in Travesties) who would happily meet Miss Prism round the back of the vestry given half the chance.

He is on standby  to Christen both Algernon and Jack as born-again Ernests  to give some credence to their alter egos.

There are still rocky moments for our happy couples though with “passionate celibacy” on the cards until the deck all fall into place and everyone is set to live happily ever after.

The production uses the same, solid impressive set as Travesties and relies heavily on Simon Bond's skilllful lighting to change the scene  from London flat to country garden to country house.

As long as Wilde's classic play finds productions are as good as this one Ernest should continue to find importance in being earnest for at least another 116 years.

Roger Clarke

Travesties review

Added surprise to the Wilde goings on

****

THIS classic Oscar Wilde comedy, full of twists and turns and improbable situations, has an additional surprise which has nothing to do with the author.

Lady Bracknell, the domineering aristocrat, and such a key figure in the story, is played by a man!

Don't ask me why, but Nick Caldecott is certainly skilled in the role. He just about gets away with it when using that haughty voice her ladyship had when addressing lesser mortals, but it's difficult to forget that she/he is a guy, assuming you have read the programme before curtain up.

That aside, it is an impressively staged production in which all the humour and mischief Wilde created in the tale in which two male friends discover the importance of being earnest (serious feeling or intention) and being Earnest (the name two attractive young ladies target for their perfect mate).

Tom Davey (John Worthing) and Matthew Douglas (Algernon Moncrieff) are impressive as the two toffs who adopt other names as cover for various risky activities, and there are delightful performances from Emily Bowker (Gwendolen) and Emerald O'Hanrahan (Cecily). the girls they hope to marry.

Amusing contributions, too, from Giles Taylor, first playing Lane, the bright, youngish butler in one home, then Merriman the doddery old servant in another.

Directed by Philip Wilson, the play - first performed in London in 1895 - runs in conjunction with Tom Stoppard's Travesties. To 22.10.11

Paul Marston

 

 Earnest endeavours finished off Oscar

The Importance of Being Ernest marked the start of Wilde's spectacular fall from grace in a story as tragic as an Victorian melodrama.

The play opened in triumph and Wilde was the supertsar of the age but neither he nor his adoring public realised that this brilliant play was to be his last.  

What is widely regarded as his best play came at a time when, at 41, he was at the peak of his literary powers. He was the darling of society, a beacon in the literary and theatrical world, with a glittering career stetching long into the twentieth century ahead of him.

Except for one snag; The Marques of Queensbury, he of the boxing rules, who was furious about Wilde's relationship with his son Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde's Bosie.

Queensbury had intended to present Wilde with a basket of rotten fruit to create a scene to ruin opening night at the St James' Theatre, but with the theatre forewarned Queensbury was refused admission.

Four days later Queensbury made his scene. He left his calling card at Wilde's club, the Albermarle, with “For Oscar Wilde posing somdomite” scrawled on it. The spelling might have been a bit awry but the sentiment was clear and, as sodomy was a crime,  and he had accused Wilde of being a sodomite, Wilde, perhaps ill advisably, sued for libel.

Queensbury, who had employed a team of private detectives,  in turn produced a sordid picture of Wilde's rather less public life including male prostitutes who claimed they had had relations with Wilde.

His lawyers advised him to withdraw his prosecution. The costs bankrupted him and with Queensbury found not guity and his claim Wilde was a sodomite justified a warrant was issued for Wilde's arrrst.

Friends urged him to flee the country but Wilde prevaricated and was then arrested and subsequently found guilty of gross indecency and jailed for two years hard labour.

Wilde, a broken man, and social pariah left England on his release and for a while lived with Bosie near Naples until a separation was brought about by their respective families threatening to cut off funds.

Wilde was to die of cerebral meningitis in a fleapit of a Paris hotel in 1900 aged just 46.

His legacy after The Importance of being Earnest was a long 50,000 word letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, De Profundis (From the Depths) and The Ballad of Reading Goal, published originally in the name of c.3.3., his number as a prisoner - cell block C, landing three, cell three.

We will never know what was lost to the world by the intolerance of the society Wilde lived in, what he may have written, but The Importance of Being Earnest remains one of the best known and best loved plays in the theatres.

His grave in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris bears an epitaph taken  from The Ballad of Reading Goal,

 

And alien tears will fill for him,

Pity's long-broken urn,

For his mourners will be outcast men,

And outcasts always mourn.

Roger Clarke

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