Set play

14th January 2000 at 00:00

Rob Swain has never previously directed The Importance of Being Earnest and never even seen it on stage. When he read Oscar Wilde's classic comedy on a hot summer afternoon, he was intrigued by the fantasy world that Wilde creates.

"I had always imagined it as a depiction of Victorian high society, almost a realistic piece, but it has only a passing resemblance to normality," he explains. "The more one reads it, the more one realises that it is a deliberately constructed fantasy world, like the world of the fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream."

Swain is directing Harrogate Theatre's new touring production of Wilde's play. Often described as the quintessential English comedy, it tells the story of two young men, two impossibly pretty young women, mistaken identities and the formidable Lady Bracknell, who must sanction any marriage.

Swain also sees echoes of Lewis Carroll's Alice books in the play which, being far removed from reality, allows Oscar Wilde to make stronger artistic and moral comments about society than a more realist drama would have allowed.

"Wilde's play is full of deliberate contradictions about wealth, about what constitutes love and what constitutes happiness. He mocks the absurdity of the marriage convention and the absurdities of social niceties in Victorian society, but he does not want audiences to take sides, hemakes no judgments. He just sets up the dilemmas and lets the characters cannon off each other."

Wilde said that his play should "go like a shot from a revolver" so Swain's actors will play it briskly rather than in the usual languid fashion. Too much time to think, insists Swain, and the bubble will burst. "Some of Wilde's epigrams read like diktats from the Queen of Spades," says Swain. "In fact Lady Bracknell might be the Queen of Spades."

He strikes another comparison with A Midsummer Night's Dream. The young lovers in MSND retreat to the woods from Athens; the young lovers in The Importance of Being Earnest leave London to gather in the garden of a country house. The play's resolution takes place in the drawing-room: a compromise setting, neither the imposing rigidity of the city nor the leafy lovers' idyll of the garden. Swain will put his actors in a conservatory: part garden and part house.

"In the countryside there are more echoes of Lewis Carroll, though of course they are not deliberate," he adds. "People are not who they seem to be. Canon Chasuble and Miss Prism, a bumbling vicar and a silly spinster, are two extraordinary, ridiculous characters who deserve to be, in design terms, as cartoon-like as some of the characters in Alice in Wonderland. It really is a dream-like world."

Kevin Berry From January 29 to February 19, then touring until mid-April. Tel: 01423 502116

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