The Importance Of Being Earnest is, famously, "a trivial comedy for serious people". Sadly, Matthew Smith's production at the Watermill Theatre near Newbury is more trivial than most.
Let us begin with the voices. I know that Received Pronunciation is no longer as... well, as received as it used to be, and in general this is to be welcomed as an end to linguistic snobbery. In the case of Wilde's prose, however, it means that people are simply not acting properly if, as almost all Smith's principal players do, they drop Hs, intrude Rs, insert glottal stops and turn every unemphasised vowel into the indeterminate sound that linguists call the "schwa" and dictionaries represent by an upside-down "e". It turns the cut-glass of the epigrams into Christmas-cracker plastic.
The young men come over as boys playing at being even as tenuously grown-up as they are. Duncan Wisbey's Jack Worthing, when remonstrating, adopts the bent-forward-at-the-waist pose of the self-righteous fourth-form swot telling his tormentor that, ooh, you're going to catch it from Sir. Gareth Corke's Algy Moncrieff has raided the adults' wardrobes and is dressing up as Daddy, or even as granddad: as well as his taste for gorgeously decadent pyjamas, he affects a tasselled smoking cap not only at home, but even on his arrival in the garden of Jack's country house in Act Two. (The musical arrangements, also by Wisbey, are clever, but too clever for Algy: the whole point about the character is that he picks out tunes desultorily rather than thundering away at a pastiche of "All Things Bright And Beautiful" in the style of Tchaikovsky.)
Kirsty Bushell's Gwendolen is simply a century out of time, being a thoroughly modern girl in all aspects of speech and demeanour, just wearing a Victorian frock. Rachel Ferjani makes a decent fist of the fausse-ingenue qualities of Cecily, but again come those glottal stops and the too-modern mannerisms such as greeting her ensnarement of Algy with a silent, exultant "Yes!" Anita Carey's Lady Bracknell is pert and direct: this makes sense in terms of her remark that she had no fortune herself before marrying Lord Bracknell, but some attempt to acquire patrician manners, as opposed to merely a patrician manner, is necessary. Her ladyship is here simply an upstart. Unambiguous praise only for Andy Wilby's Canon Chasuble, younger and more energetic than usual, whom one can imagine taking healthy exercise sessions for the church boys' club.
Smith seems to have given little effort to the overall tone of the piece, as actors deliver their lines with the uncertain register of an initial read-through. The Watermill – "the West Berkshire Playhouse", as it cheekily styles itself – has done some fine work in its time, but this is not among it.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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