The Importance of Being Earnest By Oscar Wilde
Rain or Shine Theatre Company
Directed by James Reynard
Walford Mill Crafts Centre, Wimborne
28th August 2010
All the pictures are from other venues, found on Google Image Search. Wimborne was a night time production.
The Importance of Being Earnest has loomed often and large in my life. When I was at Anglo-Continental, the brochure announced that among the attractions were regular rehearsed readings of the play in costume. When we were doing our weekly theatre shows, we had to do The Importance at least twice a year, sometimes more, for nearly ten years. This was to an audience of four hundred plus. So it’s a play I can finish most of the lines in. Karen spent years doing Cecily, until she started directing them and switched to Gwendolyn. So she knows both parts well. The last (of many) professional productions I saw was at the Theatre Royal Bath in 2008, featuring Penelope Keith as Lady Bracknell. She deliberately threw away the “A handbag!” line, one of the conundrums every Lady Bracknell has to face. Do you channel Edith Evans in what the audience expect, and hoot it out with gusto, or do you try and get past it?
And so to the garden of Walcroft Craft Centre at Wimborne for Rain and Shine’s touring production, which has gone right round the British Isles bringing live theatre to all the places that rarely get it from Alderney to Winchelsea, Watchet, Ware, Wantage, Wooton Wawen and for us, Wimborne. These places were all on the 2010 tour. I won’t list the rest of the alphabet. My drama tutor had much to say on open air theatre, always referring to it as “Whimsy cult in the Wet.” It had been a wet week indeed, and we were laden with cushions, plastic macs, sheets of plastic and adorned with Mossibands and reeking of citrus and eucalyptus insect repellent. Walford Mill, as the name suggests, is right next to the river. But it was the first dry night in a week, with clear skies, and the clouds of mosquitos, midges and Blandford flies were held dancing in the spotlight beams. My expectations were not high, but we were aware that it’s hard to go wrong with that script, probably the most popular and most performed play of the last century.
However, I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed an “Importance” so much. I enjoyed it even more than Bath in 2008. They played perfectly to the situation. Superb costumes, a minimal set, full lighting with no playing around. The acting style was very much “to the front” which is (a) the style of Wilde’s era and (b) how Wilde wrote the lines. Everything was played “bigger” and a tad bawdier than conventional stage productions, which is absolutely right for the open air when you have to project more. Reactions were stagier, but no worse for that. Excellent direction brought new life to many, many well-known (dare I say, nowadays “hackneyed”) lines. James Reynard who directed also played the lead role of Jack Worthing.
Alec Gray as Lane and Merriman; Rob Meetham as Algernon.
Lane, Merriman and Canon Chasuble were combined by Alec Gray who also acted as compere / announcer. The butlers often are combined, but I hadn’t seen the Canon worked in with them before. It was done by playing Lane as snooty as usual, and making Merriman a gardener with an unkempt wig, dashing on and dashing off. I approved thoroughly. Merriman has to get more and more fed up as he’s sent off to arrange the dog cart to take Algie to the station, then cancel the dog cart, then re-arrange the dog cart repeatedly. It is often done by playing him as an exhausted wheezing geriatric staggering off to try again, which slows the play, and though funny, focusses attention past the principals onto Merriman. I always thought you can pant and puff at the run rather than wheeze at the crawl, and that maintains the pace.
Hilary Derrett as Lady Bracknell with James Reynard as Jack
Open air theatre with a schedule as punishing as Rain or Shine’s doesn’t lend itself to shipping a genuine portly dowager around the country as Lady Bracknell. So Hilary Derrett’s Lady Bracknell here was much younger than we’re used to. That Edith Evans film set an interpretation in stone, so it was good to see Dame Edith’s Lady B thrown out of the window. Though younger, she got her authority from the reactions of Jack Worthing and Algernon Montcrief. She did the “a handbag” line by saying it slowly while writing it in her notebook. In fact it’s all there in Wilde’s lines. Lady Bracknell says she was nothing before she married Lord Bracknell. Usually that’s an aside. Here it was perhaps the point. Lady Bracknell is pushy as well as plain snooty.
Gwendolyn (Pippa Meekings) and Cecily (Claire Tucker) both shone, particularly in their interaction scene. Perfect costume helps, but they played extremely well together, especially in the tricky unison bits. Miss Prism wasn’t the prim but timid lady we’re used to. She was played sexier and bawdier, virtually getting into slap and tickle with the rather randy reverend. It’s not how Wilde envisaged her perhaps, but again, it worked. This was a Bank Holiday weekend. All my childhood the big treat of a Bank Holiday was a Brian Rix farce broadcast live direct from the Whitehall Theatre. When you’re in the open-air with noisy birds in the trees, audible traffic and no theatre acoustic, pulling out the farcical elements was exactly right. The bit where the audience got inadvertently splattered with water must be a first for a Wilde play.
James Reynard (director, Jack Worthing) and Rob Meetham (Algernon). Act 1
Jack and Algie were very funny, less suave than usual. Algie playing raucus trumpet (mainly offstage) substituted well for piano … a recent production not only had a grand piano on stage, but a five minute solo keyboard performance to go with it. Algie’s striped jacket in acts two and three was almost identical to the one we used (and which I still possess). One nice bit, which I felt they threw away, was Algie’s entrance in Act 2. He arrives costumed in long white coat, white driving cap and goggles, as if Mr Toad, having just driven his vintage Darracq car all the way to Hertfordshire. It was done below the stage, which from a distance in the opposite corner lost impact. The elaborate costume for the entrance was so good that he should have worn it onto the stage.
A wonderful time was had by all. I’ll be looking out for next year’s schedule.