Director Patrick Mason reunites with Marty Rea and Rory Nolan, the double act from his 2009 production of The Rivals, for an elegant production of Wilde’s comedy of dual identities.
Algernon Moncrieff (Rory Nolan) is a confirmed Bunburyist; evading formidable aunt Lady Bracknell (Deirdre Donnelly) by dint of imaginary invalid friend Bunbury, who is at death’s door whenever she issues invitations. Algernon is determined to unmask his friend Ernest Worthing (Marty Rea) as a secret Bunburyist after finding a card revealing him to be Ernest in town, but Jack in the country. Jack insists he is merely maintaining a high moral tone for the benefit of his ward Cecily (Lorna Quinn) by the invention of disreputable brother Ernest, whose outrages necessitate frequent trips to London. But when Jack’s new fiancé, Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen (Lisa Dwyer Hogg), announces she could only love a man named Ernest, and Lady Bracknell declares Jack’s unknown parentage an insurmountable objection, Jack’s engagement seems doomed. And that’s before Algernon helpfully complicates matters with some absurdist Bunburying…
Designer Francis O’Connor spoke in his Gate Lab talk of producing a space of ‘vivid neutrality’ hiding playfulness and tricks; from Oscar’s visage faintly imprinted on the back wall, to a toy train running on tracks laid into the floor for Act 2’s shift to the country, to the startling ejection of rows of champagne or filing cabinets from a side wall when given a push. Panels in the back wall open to reveal Algy’s vases full of perfect green carnations, bucolic countryside impressions, and Jack’s massive portrait of Queen Victoria surrounded by eminent Victorians. O’Connor’s costumes visually cue Mason’s take on the characters: Algy is the perfect aesthete, his blue suit perfectly fitted to his decor, Gwendolen is a chip off the old block, her lavender outfit a variation on her mother’s dress, and Jack is trying too hard to pass as an Establishment worthy, his dark clothes always too sombre. Even Jack’s servant is off. Lane (Bosco Hogan) is in insouciant synch with Algy, but uncertain Merriman (a Fassbendering Des Keogh) is nearly clobbered by filing cabinets, makes heavy weather of clearing away Cecily’s books to lay the table, and runs away whimpering after serving Gwendolen detestable tea-cake.
It’s instructive to note the Rea/Nolan double act’s contrast to Shackleton/Murphy in Smock Alley’s recent Earnest. The business of the last muffin here sees Algy magnificently insouciant and inert, not mischievous and active, with Jack’s despairing throwing of a handkerchief over the muffin tray, rather than engaging in a tug-of-war for it, summarising Rea’s interpretation. This is a man at pains to be respectable but continually thwarted by others. Pushed on to the ground by Miss Prism (a droll Marion O’Dwyer), he attempts to muster an entirely imaginary dignity before asking Lady Bracknell if she’d mind awfully telling him who he is. Rea’s expression when Jack finds his real name in the Army Lists is a comic joy. Donnelly is a wonderful Lady Bracknell, eschewing outright scenery chewing for a forthright indomitability that makes quotable lines fresh putdowns, while Dwyer Hogg, the polar opposite of her Heartbreak House ingénue, vamps it up as Gwendolen, with a Brackenellian imperiousness towards Cecily. Mark Lambert, so rambunctious in that Heartbreak House, seems underused as Canon Chasuble; amusingly rendered a relation of Peter Cook’s Very Impressive Clergyman; but complaining that supporting players have too much star power clearly points to an embarrassment of riches.
Mason had wondered what he could bring to another production of Earnest; the answer was reforming an unbeatable trio of himself, Rea, and Nolan.
The Importance of Being Earnest continues its run at the Gate until the 30th of January.