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Uncovering hidden lives

Aleks Sierz previews a new production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest which sets out to portray the play's serious side

The Importance of Being Earnest

Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester June 22 to August 7

Tel: 0161 833 9833; www.royalexchange.co.uk

The Importance of Being Earnest, first staged in 1895, was Oscar Wilde's last success and features one of the great comic creations of English drama, the dowager Lady Bracknell, now played at the Manchester Royal Exchange by Gabrielle Drake (right). In a neatly symmetrical plot, Jack is in love with Gwendolen, who's decided to marry no one but a man named Ernest, while Algernon is in love with Cecily, who's also attracted to the name Ernest. Further complications arise when Lady Bracknell decides to vet anyone wishing to marry into her family.

Director Braham Murray says, "This is a fiendishly difficult play.

Usually people treat it as if it's just a bit of fluff. What you tend to get is either something ridiculously light-hearted or something that's so serious it's a thundering bore. In fact, Wilde was a deeply serious writer who also knew how to entertain." Braham Murray's approach was to "break down the text afresh - as if it was a play by Ibsen. What you find is that it's a very serious play about two men who lead secret lives - secret from each other as well as from their friends." And, of course, Wilde had his own secret life. But what do Algernon and Jack do with their secret lives? "Victorian society was famous for its subterranean licentiousness," says Braham Murray. "So the play is about a society which has become rigid to the point where its rules are as absurd as those of any fundamentalist religion. And those rules prevent the possibility of love - the only way the main protagonists can cope with this rigidity is to duck out of society and have alter egos."

Lady Bracknell is the "high priestess of this society, and the point of her character is that she is doing the best for her daughter, Gwendolen, and that means marrying the right person. Social rules are a way of ensuring that outcome. Lady Bracknell admits to having been poor and she entered high society by marrying well - by seducing her husband-to-be."

At the end of the play, "society is triumphant and none of its rules is broken". Perhaps, suggests Murray, "this was Wilde's final satirical comment on the society that was just about to break him - his imprisonment for homosexuality followed shortly after the play opened."

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