Review of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’: “Some icons are worth a tweak “

One of the most successful classics in British theatre history returns to the scene in a new fresh version now arriving to Kingston’s Rose Theatre after touring around the UK. Guillermo Nazara reviews this updated take on Wilde’s most popular comedy, to let us know what’s to expect in the most beloved mad house of Victorian London.

To talk about Oscar Wilde means to talk about extravangance, dare and the fulfillment of every little (or huge, if that’s closer to your taste…) crave in your body. If some unspeakable images are coming to your mind upong reading this – well, let me make this very clear… It seems that we’re in business – because if there’s something that Wilde did like nobody else could was defying social conventions. But for those who may look apart every time somebody makes the slightest reference to, let’s call it “the unknown” (though trust me, they know it well…), let me tell you that there’s nothing of the sort in this production. After all, we’re talking about a traditionalist comedy poking fun at 19th century’s moral convictions… and of how they managed to mess it all up in one show.

Purism is to cultural preservation what… Well, we don’t need comparisons (yes, you’ve got me, I couldn’t find one…). But the thing is that for art to be kept alive, it needs to evolve – always. It’s true that the greatest writers are able to dig deeper into the the fabric of conventions to target directly at the human soul with universal themes. But no matter how much you may get away from current customs, the influences are always going to be and manifest there – some way or the other. Thus, it really comes as obvious to try to make old (or ancient, don’t get offended) pieces appealing to today’s audiences – after all, they were indeed written for viewers from a specific time in History. But usually when new directors try to tamper with them, the unavoidable happens: if it’s a drama, they tend to keep it pretty much the same; if it’s a comedy, they make it childish and somophomoric.

There are several elements in this production to support this last statement. Though maintaining the original text and atmosphere (it’s still Victorian England), on this occasion priests and aunts change genders (the first narratively, the latter, only regarding who hides behind the dress… and the corset… and the petticoat…and the feathered hat…). Furthermore, the inspiration for this production does not stem from any shield analysis in modern life, nor anything related to the theatre whatsoever, but a 90s TV show known for the embarrassing Tom Jones dances performed by a rich high school senior student. Yes, that’s exactly what I mean, they’ve based it on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air… And they were SO RIGHT to do it!

Of course that’s just a vibe shedding light on the entire approach of the piece, but it’s precisely that understanding of the satire and, all in all, the ageless humour printed under the surface of an apparently old-fashioned plot that makes the text come to life – giving it the energy and proximity of a present-day sitcom. With more than a few brilliant additions to the cast (the undisputable winner being Daniel Jacob, for his sassy hysterical portrayal of Lady Bracknell), the chemistry and energy displayed onstage is more than infectous and though some performances could benefit from a bit more of ease (Adele James’s rendition of Gwendolen is probably the most evident case, though still enjoyable), there’s no doubt that, as for what direction (credit to Denzel Westley-Sanderson) and acting are concerned, this version works almost to perfection.

Presented with quite a detailed design by Lily Arnold, the initial setting manages to transport us to the play’s universe in a much brilliant way – exuding both cleverness and aesthetics in the ideas, but sadly fails to do the same when it comes to the next scenes, as the space is not as versatile as needed to be transformed into other environments. The same could be said about some of the transitions, which once in a while seem a bit too long, although the pace is all in all very well suspended and, most importantly, the interest in the show never ceases to increase.

Art is a field of risks and dangers by its own nature – and with risks, there can only come triumph or failure. There’s no need to specify which of both this one has achieved. With almost the entire house standing from the beginning of the curtain call, the long (long, long, long) trip to Kingston might as well be worth it after all. And for those who fret their favourite play may be destroyed by thespian revolutionaries, rest assured you don’t need to worry about a thing. Either you love classic or modern, here there’s room for everyone!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Importance of Being Earnest plays at London’s Kingston’s Rose Theatre until 12 November. Tickets are available on the following link.

By Guillermo Názara

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