Earnestly irreverent: Oriel College Garden’s The Importance of Being Earnest

There was a lot going against me enjoying this play, that was completely outside of the Oriel College Garden production’s control. I’d been up since 5 and just wanted to sleep, the weather was cold and windy, people behind me kept whispering and the occasional sound of traffic from somewhere in the distance did nothing to serenade the average audience member. And I have to be honest, it took a while for the performance to find its feet, but once it did, it was sprinting.

The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People was first performed in 1895, and over a century later it still captivates audiences with its ironic wit and vivacious sense of fun; however, it is the more serious undertones and societal critiques that truly make this a timeless piece. It was an immediate success, and the play is heralded as Oscar Wilde’s greatest work, although in many ways it was the beginning of the end, with Wilde being sent to prison soon after it premiered. This time around, it has been directed by Bella Simpson and Danann Kilburn. 

The performance took place in Oriel College’s first quad, which was excellent for capturing the extravagance of the world of The Importance of Being Earnest. The ornate architecture and grand entrance acted as the perfect backdrop for discussions of Bunburying and the seriousness of meals. The outdoor setting was always going to be a risk, and at the start of the evening I was worried it wouldn’t pay off, but as the night drew on and the elegant whimsy of the performance took over, I soon forgot about how much I wished I’d brought an extra layer. In fact, the cold was curiously fitting, considering that at the 1895 premiere it was similarly chilly weather. 

Honestly, it would be difficult to stage a bad performance of Wilde’s signature witty and verbosely decorous play. It is always a delight to see his words come to life, and in such skilful hands as the Oriel Garden players, it was a treat to witness. The plot follows the plights of Jack Worthing (Grace Romans) and his friend Algernon Moncrieff (Freddie Houlahan) as they get themselves into various “scrapes”, as Algernon calls them, trying to woo their respective love interests of Gwendolen Fairfax (Nidhi Madhani) and Cecily Cardew (Judy Durkin). At the dinner party, during which we are introduced to the brilliant Lady Bracknell (Peregrine Neger), Jack proposes to Gwendolyn, and Algernon learns of Jack’s house in the country. Indeed, it is this house to which we are transported after the interval, to meet Cecily and Miss Prism (Phoebe Winter), who is having her own love affair with Reverend Chasuble (Marcus O’Conner). In this nominal culture where names are everything, both Jack and Algernon attempt to Christen themselves anew as Ernest, as it has been the dream of Gwendolyn and Cecily to marry someone with such a name. Through a series of misdemeanours, the gloriously convoluted plot culminates in the revelation that Jack is in fact Ernest all along (although truly earnest he is not), and everything can end happily ever after. 

Everyone gave their all in this performance, and the portrayal of Lady Bracknell was stellar. Whilst the programme boasts of having Jack played by a female presenting actor and having Lady Bracknell perform in drag, I have to wonder if this is quite as revolutionary as they claim. Regardless, it certainly fed into the spirit of Wilde’s original play, where gender and gender roles are continually interrogated. The music was the star of the show, and the passion for the craft was evident in the quality of the melodious elements of the play. Simpson writes in the director’s note, “music is key to all that I do,” and this is clearly captured in the immersive use of sound throughout the show, demonstrating the skills of Alessandro Mackinnon-Botti as musical director. 

As I mentioned at the beginning of the review, there was a lot going against me enjoying this play. Yet I still had a wonderful evening, which is testament to the talents of both cast and crew. 

Image credit: Tarun Rao and Nathaniel Best

Image description: A performance of The Importance of Being Earnest at Oriel College.