The Importance of Being Earnest | Review
The MAC, Belfast • Runs until 15 April ’17
By Ciara Conway
The MAC and Bruiser Theatre Company present Oscar Wilde’s critically acclaimed dramatic satire The Importance of Being Earnest (1895).
Met with an Oscar Wilde lookalike lying flat on a couch while whirling a baton centre stage, Diana Ennis’s minimal yet effective set provokes thoughts of how the night is going to unfold. Flamboyance and fabulousness already seems evident. The perimeter of the stage surrounding the supine Wilde encompasses a circular staircase with spot-lit ottomans on each level. Clad in smart Victorian dress, a man approaches the piano situated stage left and breaks into composer Matthew Reeve’s opening musical ensemble. Six Oscar Wilde lookalikes pounce onstage, dressed identically in beige trouser suits and wearing Wildean wigs; high-energy vocals along with mounted can-cans and side-kicks set the tone for the evening ahead.
As the opening ensemble finishes, the Wildes’ scatter to the surrounding ottomans where they sit cross legged in sophisticated chin-on-palm poses. They contribute to the onstage action accordingly. Act I’s plot steadily unfolds and finishes with a strong finale – the men march, arm in arm singing of ‘Who’ll stop us’ and ‘What if?’. Act II opens with the cheerful, bouncy tone of Act I, the men now dressed as women in floral frocks surrounded by flowers in a tranquil country setting. They sing of being ‘safe within our sanctuary’ where life is ‘perfectly simple and pure’. The entire ensemble brings Act III to an amiable close.
Standout performances are Ross Anderson-Doherty‘s Lady Bracknell and Richard Croxford’s Lady Prism. Bracknell’s fabulously decorated pompous projections and Prism’s innocent yet promiscuous nature are met with hearty chuckles throughout. Similarly, Cecily and Gwendolen’s rivalry turned sisterly solidarity is comically fashioned by Chris Robinson and Samuel Townsend. Joseph Derrington’s Algy and Joseph O’Malley’s Jack give the well-known love-hate relationship the justice it deserves. Lisa May’s direction certainly upholds and maintains the wit and mirth of Wilde’s script.
Wilde’s financial ruin, imprisonment, exile and premature death was indeed the reality for gay men in fin du siècle London. Bruiser’s decision to employ an all-male cast was motivated by a desire to address issues of gender equality and same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland; however, such social issues weren’t evidently prevalent due to the romantic relationships being dramatised as heterosexual. While this agenda could be interpreted as an issue of hidden identity, one could say that the men dressed as women alluded to Elizabethan theatre practice of ‘crossed-dressed boy as woman’ roles. This is ‘detheatricalised’ in one scene – Algy and Cecily stand together centre-stage, face-to-face. Algy’s jacket is removed, so too is Cecily’s skirt and the hidden sexuality is stripped down and its bare reality is revealed. Questions could be asked as to why this wasn’t the trend throughout? Another thought, in addressing gender issues perhaps more poignant would have been an all-female cast? That said it is apparent that Bruiser are drawing parallels with Wilde’s personal life. Nonetheless, questions raised and conversations initiated regarding directorial decisions across casting, staging and interpretation is what a night at the theatre will always anticipate.