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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Importance of Being Earnest
Riverside Studios   Winter 2011-2012

The Importance of being Earnest, a brilliant mixture of elegant sophistication and preposterous nonsense, is the wittiest comedy in the English language. 'The play is a success,' said Oscar Wilde in an interview just prior to the premiere on 14th February 1895.  'The only question is whether the first night audience will be one.'

There are two major problems which face any revival. The first is the over-familiarity of the epigrams. (When Fay Compton forgot her lines at the Old Vic in 1960 she was prompted from the audience.) The second is the memory of definitive performances, many of them preserved in Anthony Asquith’s 1953 film: Edith Evans’s Lady Bracknell, Michael Denison’s Algernon, Joan Greenwood’s Cecily, Dorothy Tutin’s Cecily, Margaret Rutherford’s Prism and Miles Malleson’s Chasuble.

The Importance of Being Earnest, directed by Iqbal Khan, at Riverside with Gyles Brandreth as Lady Bracknell, is a new musical. Douglas Livingstone, Adam McGuinness and Zia Moranne are not the first to turn Wilde’s comedy into a musical. There are at least 20 musical versions with such titles as Oh, Ernest, Bunbury, Who’s Earnest?, Wilde About Marriage, Mein Freund Bunbury, Found in a Handbag, Half in Earnest, Ernest in Love, Nobody’s Earnest, L’Importanza d’Essere Franco, The Importance, and Borne in a Handbag. None of them was any good, evidently.   

Wilde’s comedy is much diminished by being turned into a musical comedy. It doesn’t need songs. A lot of good lines are lost. Pleasant though the show is to watch in a fringe venue, there is no way that Livingstone, Guinness and Moranne are going to drive the play off the stage in the way that Oscar Straus’s The Chocolate Soldier (1908) and Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady (1956) drove Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man and Pygmalion off the stage for a considerable period of time. 

Noel Coward turned Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan into a musical, After the Ball (1954), with disastrous results. The only musical adaptation of Wilde’s plays to succeed is Richard Strauss’s opera, Salome (1905).

Lady Bracknell is a monster without being a myth, a Wagnerian gorgon, implacable in her snobbery and unashamedly mercenary. The role is part Queen Victoria, part Wilde, part transvestite.
Every actress who plays Lady Bracknell acts in the enormous shadow of Edith Evans's gorgon. The celebrated Evans upward inflection on A HANDBAAAG! is, probably, the most quoted and imitated phrase in British theatre.

There have been many actors who have played Lady Bracknell: Hinge and Bracket in London in a dreadful travesty, Jonathan Hyde in Glasgow, Quentin Crisp in New York, William Hutt in Stratford, Ontario, Bette Bourne on tour (who fooled the audience completely; they having no idea he was a man), Michael Fitzgerald in Bristol in an all-male production, and most recently, Brian Bedford in New York earlier this year. Geoffrey Rush has just opened in Melbourne. 

Wilde himself would have made a good lady Bracknell. Gyles Brandreth is much better than he has been credited. He looks like Queen Mary and plays it all quite straight.  Colin Ryan and Mark Edel-Hunt are personable Bunburyists. Flora Spencer-Longhurst is a delightful ward. Susie Blake (governess) and Edward Petherbridge (canon) have a gentle little song, It All Began in a Garden.

I leave the last words to Wilde. When he was interviewed by his lover, Robbie Ross, in the St James’s Gazette and asked what sort of play The Importance was, he replied: 'It is exquisitely trivial, a delicate bubble of fancy, and it has a philosophy that we should treat all the trivial things of life very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.'

Robert Tanitch

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Review -   The Importance of Being Earnest - Riverside Studios 2011

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