Hidden depths;Set Play;Theatre

28th May 1999 at 01:00
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST. By Oscar Wilde. Chichester Festival Theatre

Written as the storm was about to break over his own life, it's little surprise, says director Christopher Morahan, that Oscar Wilde's final comedy should contain so many characters that live double lives. It shows a world where nothing is as it seems.

If Lady Bracknell (Patricia Routledge) is the main exception to the double-life rule (Canon Chasuble is the other one), it's because she's a representative of a very conservative society.

She does not change during the play. And she has to be played as someone sure of herself and her views. The only thing that shocks her is a social, not a moral, outrage: "That Jack Worthing should seek to claim a place in society while being descended from a parcel, a presumptuous insult to the rules of late Victorian society, about which she has no doubt. She's not a fool and she defends her position with certainty."

So she's overjoyed when the gap in her family is filled with the discovery that Jack is a lost relation. Family is vitally important to her and the discovery of a missing relative is a happy event.

The play is "an extraordinarily healing play, as it's to do with love", says Morahan, comparing it to Shakespearean comedy. And the grande dame of the action has "something beneficent in her presence. She effects, one way or another, the union of three couples".

By contrast Jack Worthing (Adam Godley), found in the famous handbag, is unsure of his origins. This also distinguishes him from his friend Algy (Alan Cox), who is so certain of his place in life.

What these two regard as serious and trivial has been a vital part of rehearsal discussions; Algy, for instance, places great weight upon eating. Discovering what matters to them is necessary, for otherwise there's "a danger Algy and Jack are just two young men about town who just practise epigrams on each other".

And Morahan's production will not be placing the pair in the aesthetic circle that Wilde himself occupied - the play gives no indication that that was intended (and it would, presumably, have affected the way West End audiences of the 1890s viewed the pair).

"It's not a surface play at all," Morahan says. Despite the glittering surface, it's necessary always to find the reality of the situations it presents, and of the characters. Gwendolen (Saskia Wickham) has her mother's forcefulness but she is also a fashionable romantic. If she quotes other people's opinions they derive from up-to-the-minute sources; she'd have been attending progressive lectures at London's Conway Hall and reading progressive pamphlets.

This predisposes her urban character to sudden friendship with the rural Cecily (Rebecca Johnson). Morahan refers to Lewis Carroll's Alice when he mentions Cecily: "An only child with no company. She has created a whole romance out of nothing in her diary, and fakes letters. She's a practical romantic. The weapons Cecily has are the weapons of childhood. She has no practical experience of how to get the best out of someone else but she knows what will infuriate" - such as handing cake to Gwendolen, who's requested bread and butter.

In repertoire to July 17. Tickets: 01243 781312

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