The importance of being earnest

The Importance of Being Earnest: a preview

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple”. University College is performing The Importance of Being Earnest this week, inviting you to indulge in deceptive identities, comical tossups, love and passion set against the setting sun.

Premiering in 1895, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest has delighted audiences with its layered wit, elaborate plot twists, and comedic genius (the title itself is a pun!) for decades before making its way to the Oxford stage. The OxStu was able to catch a glimpse into the Univ Players’ dress rehearsal the afternoon before the opening night, as well as interview cast and crew about their hopes and visions for the upcoming play. 

Adapting a classic 

Director Maximillian (Max) Ren described the play as a “combination between a comedy of manners and high farce”, with all the classic elements of identity theft, mismatched marriage, and more woven into a sophisticated and elegant comedy. Its popularity speaks for itself: the play is shrewd, flamboyant, intriguing, incisive, and immensely quotable.

The play follows two friends, Jack and Algernon, who both pretend to be named Ernest, and the confusion that ensues when two separate women, Cecily and Gwendolen, both fall in love with this elusive “Ernest”. 

Max further remarked that “It’s just such a classic” – indeed, Oscar Wilde’s farcical comedy has been performed multiple times since its first release and even adapted into a feature-length film. As a mainstay of the literary canon, there are big shoes to fill here. This doesn’t seem to faze Max, however, who simply hopes to “stay true to Wilde” in putting up a classic rendition of the famous play. “I think it’s really important to not overdo the acting, and just let the play speak for itself”, he adds when asked about his vision for the show. 

Nevertheless, there were still a few changes made to the play – namely the element of cross-dressing (which goes both ways!) and the staging of the play entirely in the University College Masters Garden. 

Lady Bracknell, despite the feminine-sounding name, is played by Max himself, while Miss Prism is similarly played by actor Fraser Weissem. Conversely, actress Kelly Yu plays not one, but two of the male butlers, Merriman and Lane. While not entirely unusual in its approach (since past stagings of the play have also featured cross-dressing), this does add to the humour of the play and fits nicely with the overarching theme of mismatched identities. 

An outdoors staging in the Masters Garden 

The staging of the play in the garden would allow for more creative licence with the use of space, said Max, as opposed to simply performing the play on a traditional rectangular stage. The setting is also much bigger, with a lot more depth and layering to play with. 

Granted, only the second act of the play is set in the garden, as acts one and three are set indoors. When faced with this issue, Max mentioned the use of props, lighting and mannerisms to “create the indoors versus outdoors feel”. 

I was particularly intrigued by his usage of mannerisms to signal location – as Max explains, the Victorians employed a rather rigid set of manners. A lady acted differently indoors and outdoors, being required to take off her hat if she’s indoors for over 15 minutes. Subtle shifts in mannerisms, therefore, become important in how the actors “play with the locality” according to Max, and propels the play into a more immersive dimension as strict Victorian norms are observed as far as possible. 

A late Victorian setting

Late Victorian England, apart from being strict in its mannerisms, was also fairly rigid in its class divisions. It is not surprising, then, that the play itself provides commentary about class and high society. Reflecting on the symbolism of her characters, the butlers Merriman and Lane, Kelly pointed to her role as a lower class presence in a play that is full of rich and glamorous people, inviting the audience to laugh along with her at the ridiculous and absurd antics employed by those of high society. 

I also wondered how the actors adapted to the mannerisms of Victorian England, and how this affected their performances. Sophia Hoad, who plays Gwendolen, told me that people in the Victorian era tended to speak slower, so she similarly tried to deliver her lines with more nuance and theatricality, taking care not to rush their delivery. “I also watched a lot of interviews from Titanic survivors and girls who were teenagers during the Victorian era to see how they spoke”, she added. 

Final thoughts 

From my brief glimpse into the afternoon’s rehearsal, the chemistry and banter between cast members were off the charts, and energy was high throughout – I am expecting an entertaining show, one Oscar Wilde himself would be proud of. 

At its heart, The Importance of Being Earnest is a play about humans, and one we can relate to almost 130 years after its release. Sophia remarks fondly that Gwendolen, beneath her tough and intellectual front, is actually “just a naive girl who wants to be loved and cherished. In that way, I think she represents many women”, she adds, before conceding that “not many of them get (love)”. 

When asked what he hopes audiences will take away from the play, Fraser, who plays Miss Prism, said “One thing you have to take from this is enjoyment. It’s nice just being outside, and seeing your fellow students produce something beautiful”. Sophia agreed, adding “The play teaches us to not take ourselves too seriously, and I think people need that”. In the midst of the exam crunch, it can also be nice to unwind and appreciate the play, surrounded by the beautiful Masters Garden.  

Whether you’re here to pay homage to Wilde (who himself was an alumnus of Oxford), or simply looking for some fun and laughter amidst the stress of exams, this performance of The Importance of Being Earnest in the beautiful University College Masters Garden is certainly one to watch.

Tickets and timings 

The Importance of Being Earnest runs from the 15th to the 17th of May, starting at 7:30pm for all three nights. General admission tickets cost £7, while concession tickets cost £5, and can be purchased here. In the event of wet weather, the college chapel will be used as an alternative venue.