Talking Movies

December 4, 2015

The Importance of Being Earnest

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.

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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.

5/5

The Importance of Being Earnest continues its run at the Gate until the 30th of January.

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August 21, 2015

The Importance of Being Earnest

Smock Alley presents a spirited production of Oscar Wilde’s classic comedy in which the setting of Victorian drawing room and garden receives an unusual interpretation.

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Algernon Moncrieff (Kevin Shackleton) is a confirmed Bunburyist; evading his formidable aunt Lady Bracknell (Valerie O’Leary) by dint of imaginary friend Bunbury, an invalid who lives in the country and is at death’s door whenever she issues invitations. Algernon is determined to unveil his friend Ernest Worthing (James Murphy) as a secret Bunburyist after finding a card revealing him to be Ernest in town and Jack in the country. Ernest, whose name is actually Jack, insists he is merely maintaining a high moral tone for the benefit of his ward Cecily (Aislinn O’Byrne) by the invention of disreputable brother Ernest, whose outrages necessitate frequent trips to London. But when Jack’s new fiancé, Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen (Clodagh Mooney Duggan), announces she could only love a man named Ernest, and her acidic mother declares that Jack’s unknown ancestry is an insurmountable obstacle to marriage, Jack’s engagement seems doomed. And that’s before Algernon decides to helpfully complicate matters with his most ridiculous Bunburying…

Marcus Costello’s startlingly green set serves as garden and drawing room with shrubbery in the shape of a piano revealing itself as a functional piano. There is also the added surreal touch of dresses hanging with lights inside them as eccentric garden decoration. Olga Criado Monleon’s costumes foppishly cast Jack in beige and Algy in blue, but excessively render unfashionable Cecily in a dress that’s almost a repurposed table-cloth. Initially you fear that director Kate Canning is attempting a Jordan-style queering of the text, but that approach quickly dissipates; though Charlie Hughes playing Lane, Merriman, and Canon Chasuble, leads to a major quibble. Lane is rendered with a jiving walk that’s as disconcerting for the character as Jeeves being played as Riff Raff, and Merriman becomes Worzel Gummidge, for the purpose of physically differentiating from Hughes’ main role as the entertainingly nervous Canon. O’Byrne also overplays vocally the girlishness and exaggerated innocence of young Cecily to contrast Duggan’s sultry Gwendolen.

And yet such complaints stand as naught against the whole production, as any gripes are swept away by the accelerating comedic momentum of Wilde’s script, and a deluge of delirious nonsense from the double act of Jack and Algy. Canning contrives some wonderful business. Jack and Algy engage in a tug of war for the silver tray bearing the coveted last muffin as Jack grunts his pained dialogue, while Katie McCann follows up one of her deliciously fake social laughs as Miss Prism with a death-stare at Jack and Algy for their effrontery. Shackleton and Murphy faced the challenge of playing roles that Rory Nolan and Marty Rea take on in a few months in the Gate’s production, and they can proudly boast that they equalled that proven double act in moments such as Jack first meeting Algy at his country estate. Duggan meanwhile adds knowing sauciness to Gwendolen’s dialogue that unnerves Jack terrifically, and seems to rediscover Wilde’s subversiveness.

Plays that are as quotable and almost over-familiar as Wilde’s offer their own hazards, and it is to this company’s credit that they sparkle.

4/5

The Importance of Being Earnest continues its run in Smock Alley until August 22nd.

June 11, 2010

The Importance of Being Lady Bracknell

The advertising campaign flooded radio-waves with trumpeting worthy of an A-list movie star. “Stockard Channing, the star of Grease and (copy-writer thinks hard, skips 30 years) The West Wing, Oscar-nominated for (copy-writer checks IMDb quickly, hoping she was indeed nominated once) Six Degrees of Separation, is starring as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest at the Gaiety, for a limited run only”. The more subdued poster campaign promised Earnest ‘With Stockard Channing’, though she was still the only actor on the poster…

The truth is that Lady Bracknell just isn’t that big a role. Is she structurally important for the tightly-wound farce? Absolutely. Does she have a plethora of disgustingly good lines? Undoubtedly. Is she on-stage for more than three scenes? Nope. Basing your advertising around the actress playing Lady Bracknell is like playing up who’s doing Caesar in Julius Caesar… You can be damn sure that Anthony Asquith when directing the definitive 1952 screen Earnest secured Michael Redgrave for the lead role before he went looking for Dame Edith Evans to do an ‘And Dame Edith Evans’ exercise in scenery-chewing as Lady Bracknell. It’s a part that grand dames of theatre from Margaret Rutherford to Judi Dench could do in their sleep, but wake up for because it’s so much fun. But it’s a fun supporting role.

Marketing the play around Channing, inevitable because of the coup of securing star-power standard in the West End, is an adoption by theatre of the bait and switch marketing trick so sadly prevalent in cinema. But theatregoers tend to be better informed, if for no other reason than the price differential and the smaller capacity venues mean more thought and planning goes into attending a play than the aimless drifting into a multiplex screen when your preferred option is sold out that is so much cinema-going. Channing will sell more tickets for Rough Magic, who wouldn’t have stepped up to a venue the size of the Gaiety otherwise, but most people attending will know she’s not going to be the leading attraction, and those who don’t may well experience the sort of annoyance at being misled that destroyed Sweeney Todd when, after a spectacularly deceitful trailer, Americans audiences discovered to their horror that it was actually a musical.

Personally I’m bemused by the hype, as even within the cast of The West Wing, while I would run to the theatre to see Martin Sheen, Bradley Whitford or Allison Janney, I would never have been that pushed about Channing. I’m also annoyed that the hype surrounding Channing distracts from the home-grown talent on show. I am perhaps biased (he was my committee liaison when I directed my first show in UCD’s Dramsoc in 2001) but it irks me that Rory Nolan, who was superb as Jack Absolute in Brinsley Sheridan’s equally ridiculous classic The Rivals in the Abbey last summer and will undoubtedly Fassbender across the Gaiety stage with Algernon’s splendid paeans to Bunburying, will receive little attention because of the media circus surrounding Channing. Yes, it is nice to see Hollywood movie-stars doing theatre here occasionally but it’s nicer to see Irish theatre actors doing theatre here every week.

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