Serious Trivia;Set Plays;Drama

8th May 1998 at 01:00
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST. By Oscar Wilde. Basingstoke Haymarket Theatre.

No sooner has Northampton Royal Theatre wiped the varnish off Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband by giving the comedy a 1930s setting (Friday, April 3), than actor-turned-director William Franklyn offers An Importance of Being Earnest set in the same period to avoid what he calls "full bodice alert". On close reading he found "there was not a single reference to suggest it was not written in the thirties".

Wilde's "serious comedy for trivial people" operates on several levels: high comedy, farce, romantic comedy and social comment on manners and hypocrisy. Franklyn also uses the term "reality comedy", which he relates to the genuine humour of The Full Monty as opposed to unfunny sitcom gagging.

He tells of an actor who had been in a disappointing production of Earnest, where the director demanded "pace, pace, pace". But, according to Franklyn "it can't be played flat out. The operative word for me is 'mercurial'. The characters keep changing. And the trivia must be played seriously. In the muffin scene my Jack and Algy became very cross, tearing at each other. The social material must have time to breathe. I have a young cast and I'm teaching them to allow sentences to have more muscle, to give words their value and to shape sentences. I give them moves mid-phrase, to help them build on previous phrases. In technical terms, the actor feeds his own joke."

Age is important, with the actors playing 23-year-old Algy (Steven Madison) and 29-year-old Jack (James Innes-Smith) of the same age. Similarly, there's a Gwendolen (June Lamacraft) close to the character's 25, and in Catherine Debenham-Taylor an actress who looks and sounds Cecily's 18 years.

This allows for a Lady Bracknell (Jan Waters) in her fifties, who circumvents the looked-for Edith Evans handbagging by picking up on Lady B's expression of bewilderment to play the scene about Jack's origins as her one moment of vulnerability. Gwendolen "is her mother's daughter, who suddenly meets and is romantically attracted to this tentative young man, Jack, whom she can manipulate, while Cecily is straightforward and romantic, upfront and uncomplicated. She has her feet on the ground."

There are stark differences between the two young men. "Algy is a layabout. He never has any money and takes nothing seriously until he meets Cecily. Everything has a light touch for him, he's a will o' the wisp. Jack is much more genuine. He didn't want to be Cecily's guardian but knows he has to be responsible. He's appalled at having to make up 'his' Earnest and at being called a Bunburyist." He doesn't bunbury lightly, unlike his friend who invented the imaginary invalid to nurse when he wants to escape Lady Bracknell's invitations.

Timothy Ramsden

Until May 30. Tickets: 01256 465566

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