Set play

25th May 2001 at 01:00
The Importance of Being Earnest. By Oscar Wilde. Library Theatre, Manchester and Palace Theatre, Watford; Watermill, Newbury.

Although the first production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895 was overshadowed by his trial and subsequent disgrace, his "trivial comedy for serious people" is now a modern classic. In a perfectly symmetrical plot, Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff talk their way through a series of misunderstandings, deceptions and comic situations - including the unforgettable arrival of the dowager Lady Bracknell - before they are allowed to marry Gwendolen and Cecily.

Lawrence Till, who directs the LibraryPalace theatres' touring co-production, sees the play as being more about Wilde than about its characters. "In a sense, Wilde is all his characters. For example, Lady Bracknell is a woman who finds herself in the aristocracy but doesn't belong there - just like her creator." The play is "often done very politely", he says, but he starting point of Till's production is the idea of "Wilde as an anarchist", a subversive artist.

Set in the 1950s, this version involves rapid costume changes as the men and women in the cast play both male and female roles. "My version is probably truer to the spirit of the original than most conventionl productions. I'm trying to rediscover the way Wilde wrote in secret codes, using the gay slang of his time." Basically, the play is a "story about being gay or being straight".

By contrast, Matthew Smith's production for the Watermill theatre is conventionally set in Victorian times. He sees the fact that the play is so well known as a challenge. "Audiences tend to know what to expect, without really looking closely at the play," he says. "What we have tried to do is to see what is really happening to the characters of the play, why they speak like they do."

Smith's Lady Bracknell, for example, is not the Gorgon of tradition, but has "good reasons for interrogating Jack - at the time, women were regarded as keepers of the moral code". The play is about how Jack and Algernon try to "evade the high moral code" of Victorian society.

Whichever production you see, it is hard to avoid being struck by the anarchic joy of Wilde's jokes about marriage and education - "it has no discernible effect" - and the sheer fun of the play.

Aleks Sierz The Importance of Being Earnest is at Manchester Library Theatre, May 25 to June 9 (box office: 0161 236 7110); Palace Theatre, Watford, June 13 to July 7 (01923 225671); Watermill, Newbury, May 30 to July 21 (01635 46044)

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