Sexed-up rather than subtle, I can’t help but be won over by this fresh take on Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest at the Vaudeville Theatre
“I hope you have not been leading a double life…that would be hypocrisy”
I find it increasingly hard to get too excited about the prospect of Oscar Wilde these days, hence having been a rare visitor indeed to Classic Spring’s year-long residency at the Vaudeville. My problem is that, as with Noël Coward’s work, there’s an insistence on the specificity of its staging which means it is far too easy to feel like you’ve seen it all before, silk pyjamas, bustles, handbags, the lot. So the notion that Michael Fentiman’s The Importance of Being Earnest has ruffled a few feathers by daring to do something different, plus the kind of casting that I could never resist, meant that I had to see for myself.
And ultimately, there’s something laughable in the idea that there’s only the one way to do Wilde. It’s more that ‘certain people’ prefer it done the way they’ve always seen it done, which is all well and good (if soul-destroying) but to bemoan a lost art because someone is finally ringing the changes? Shove a cucumber sandwich in it mate. What’s even funnier is that you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference really, it’s not as if this production is set in space, or it’s being mimed, or it’s been directed in a…European way. It has just had a good shaking down, the dust blown off the manuscript, the cobwebs swept from the velvet curtains, and an enjoyable freshness thus brought to proceedings which are sexed-up rather than subtle.
So everyone’s a lot more frisky in this version of Victorian England. Algernon’s snogging every guy he can see, including his butler Lane; Gwendolyn is bursting with sexual desire for Jack, who is as hot for her as he also seems to be for a man in a sharp suit; the servants in the country are enjoying threesomes and we first meet Cecily getting busy in the bullrushes with a gardener. It’s altogether a broader take on these characters but they remain essentially the same – whilst still pursuing private desires, public images must be maintained, propriety observed at all costs. And so the tangles of proposals and declarations of social status almost become something deeper, a protective cocoon hiding human nature in all its horniness.
That’s not to lend Fentiman’s production a seriousness but rather to point out that alternative interpretations can be made, and justified, however coarse or nuance-free you consider it. Sophie Thompson takes on the redoubtable Lady Bracknell with a delicious fruitiness which contrasts well with the more restrained work from Stella Gonet’s Miss Prism, particularly in the third act. (Seriously – that cast!) Fehinti Balogun and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd are a manic hoot as Algie and Jack and Fiona Button and Pippa Nixon have just as much fun as their intended, if not their inclined. In Madeleine Girling’s attractively-hued and clutter-free set, it’s all unexpectedly and refreshingly good fun.