Essaying the latest production at the Birmingham Rep, mounted to celebrate the play's centenary on stage, is director Terry Hands who admits its familiarity and popularity cast a long shadow which every actor and director is conscious of. "Everyone has their favourite line and interpretation of the line; everyone has fond memories of a particular actor playing one of the characters - and there are plenty of star names to choose from", he says.
He might have added that there are almost as many well-known critical responses to the play, beginning with G B Shaw's surly reaction to the first production at the St James' Theatre in 1895: "Three acts of studied triviality, however brilliant, are too much". But Eric Bentley believed that Wilde was: "as much of a moralist as Bernard Shaw, but that instead of presenting the problems of modern society directly, he flits around them, teasing them, . . . . his wit is a flickering coruscation".
Terry Hands would agree. "It is an intensely serious play", he says. "Taking it line by line in rehearsal, rather than simply remembering an overall production, you realise it is not just funny but very subversive, and very feminist. The more you treat it as if it were written today, the more clearly Wilde's attitudes to his own society emerge".
Hands believes that Wilde was deliberately mounting an attack on "Victorian values" which demanded that women be gentle, simple creatures always blushing, swooning and having the vapours. "So Wilde puts the women in charge", says Hands. "We could easily have had a Lord Bracknell overseeing events but it's Lady Bracknell, and when Algernon or John proposes, the woman runs the show. The women are re-shaping their men in the image they require".
Chief "shaper" is Lady Bracknell, played in this production by Barbara Leigh-Hunt. "She is a woman in her prime", says Hands of this evergreen character, "somebody who enjoys life and actually has a sense of humour. Furthermore - and here is Wilde being subversive - she has an unshakeable belief in the dominance of the female. She has strong views on society and on politics: today she would be in the boardroom with half a dozen senior executives at her beck and call".
But these considerations are only part of the play. Hands believes that, at its core, it is about the human heart. "It's a very passionate play; three love stories take up the course of the evening, but we don't normally get them played as love stories, where the characters are taking their emotions seriously. All three couples (including Canon Chasuble and Miss Prism) are 'earnestly' in love and 'earnestly' waiting for the chance to say so. The whole production must convey that repressed passion" he believes. "It's a play - a drama - not just seven people being witty. But it has its own set of rules, its own way of conveying emotion. It belongs in the rich English tradition of surreal humour, with Lear and Carroll as immediate influences and Milne and Monty Python still to come. We have to play by its rules but I hope the audience will feel the passion".
Ann FitzGerald Birmingham Repertory Theatre until Sunday (tickets: 0121 236 4455) then at the Old Vic, London, from June 28 (tickets 0171 928 7616).