Aleks Sierz previews a refreshing take on a familiar Oscar Wilde classic
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST. By Oscar Wilde. Theatre Royal Bath tour
Although Oscar Wilde's trial for homosexuality and subsequent disgrace overshadowed the first production of his 1895 masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, his "trivial comedy for serious people" is now a modern classic. In a perfectly symmetrical plot, Jack Worthing and Algernon Montcrieff talk their way through a series of misunderstandings and comic deceptions - including the unforgettable arrival of the dowager Lady Bracknell (played in this production by Wendy Craig) - before they are able to marry Gwendolen and Cecily.
Director Christopher Luscombe sees the play "as very familiar so the fear is that people think they 'know that old thing', and there's a danger that our received idea of Wilde will prevent us seeing the play afresh".
To avoid this, he has rewritten the play by going back to the original four-act version, which the Victorian actor-manager George Alexander persuaded Wilde to cut to three acts. "There are some really good bits in the four-act version that I think should have been kept - even though Alexander was quite right that the shorter version is stronger than the longer one."
So Luscombe has taken some 40 lines from the long version and trimmed about the same amount from the three-act version. He has also "slightly updated it by setting it in 1912", which means that the characters aren't "weighed down by ungainly Victorian clothes". Instead, the costumes are "streamlined and elegant", so Gwendolen becomes a Shavian new woman, "a sort of Suffragette".
Setting the play in Edwardian times makes Lady Bracknell "a relic of the Victorian age" so the play's "dream world" matches our vision of the high summer of British upper-class society before the First World War changed the world for ever.
Christopher Luscombe says that The Importance of Being Earnest "is a deeply subversive play, which turns conventional morality on its head, questions authority figures and the establishment, but is dressed in the garb of a very fashionable, elegant and wicked comedy".
A younger audience, he suggests, should find the play thought-provoking.
After all, at his trial, Wilde said that his "educational axiom" was "anything that stimulates thought in people of any age is good for them".
The Importance of Being Earnest tours nationwide until March 20. Details of teacher's pack and tour from Lesley DownieEmail: LDAssociates1@aol.com