It seems too often that a reworking of a classic play is attacked for ruining the ‘original intention of the author’. But Simon Brett’s attempt to re-model The Importance of Being Earnest as a dress-rehearsal for a colourful amateur dramatics company called ‘the Bunbury Players’ really is a butchering of a play that requires little addition.
The first half is repeatedly interrupted by slapstick comedy and hackneyed jokes about the fictional actors’ histories. As Nigel Havers struts over the Victorian set in bright red Nike trainers the magic of Wilde’s comic farce seems a little lost. The vaguely amusing concept might be forgiven were it not to return so regularly, and with such an absence of comic subtlety. The humour is explicit and clumsy, something akin to a flamboyant uncle making an overconfident reception speech. This trips the audience up as the play starts to find its feet, creating an odd simultaneity to the comedy, where Wilde’s writing is trivialised by the crass attempts to ‘add something original’ to the play in the form of bell-backed winks and flatscreen TVs.
One of the motivations for this seems to be the advanced age of the actors in comparison to the characters that they represent, with Martin Jarvis (72) and Nigel Havers (62) quipping enthusiastically on the topic. Both played the same roles as John Worthing (Jarvis) and Algernon Moncrieff (Havers) respectively in the National’s 1982 production of The Importance. The humour is predictable and at times puerile, with jokes playing on the ‘old guard’ having been ‘doing this too long’ and similarly naff drollery from an overconfident production. Regardless, it is an interesting trend to have older actors play younger roles, with James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave cast as Benedick and Beatrice in the Old Vic’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, or Judi Dench playing, at 75, the youthful Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But in this case one gets the feeling that the big names rather than big numbers were the driving factor.
To anyone familiar with The Importance, these failings might come as a surprise. Wilde’s apolitical comic masterpiece is a play so well written that a real life amateur dramatics company might have trouble making a hash of it, let alone under the direction of the veteran Globe director Lucy Bailey. Wilde’s humour remains brilliant and well delivered, with Sian Phillips’ Lady Bracknell a shrill gorgon-esque matriarch around which much of the hilarity focuses. The dialogue is intricate and sophisticated, with Bracknell’s grilling of Worthing creating a rich and contrarian picture of Victorian high society and its values. The matriarch flashes at times with delighting lines, telling Moncrieff to ‘[N]ever speak disrespectfully of Society, Algernon. Only people who can’t get into it do that.’ Or her brilliantly termed command to hergranddaughter Cecily (Christine Kavanagh) to ‘Sit down immediately. Hesitation of any kind is a sign of mental decay in the young, of physical weakness in the old.’
Wilde’s most famous play is ubiquitous on the theatre circuit, being made into an opera by Gerald Barry last year, Philip Wilson stripping the play of ‘Victorian mustiness’ in 2011, and the Library Theatre Company recreating their 50-year-old classic production in 2012. Looking at reviews of such other recent productions, it seems that The Importance rarely draws lower than a four star rating. It might be worth waiting and giving this one a miss, unless we can group together and get Simon Brett’s ‘additional material’ cut? Please?
The Importance of Being Earnest runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London until 20 September