Maltings Theatre Outdoor season
Oscar Wilde rightfully seizes the name of wit. His work is infused with the dark contradictions of the Victorian era, as a writer forced to hide a large part of himself. His play The Importance of Being Earnest is likewise a tale of duplicity, and a difficult one to get right. In the amphitheatre of The Roman Theatre of Verulamium, St Albans, in what felt like a hurricane of flying ants, The Maltings Theatre attempts this most tricksy work.
In this Wildean spin on the mistaken identity trope, good honest Jack Worthing (country esquire), played by Lyle Fulton, morphs into his hedonistic brother Ernest, in order to gallivant around London. When love arrives on the scene, the pretence is stretched to the limit with hilarious consequences.
This recontextualisation pushes the play forward in time around 30 years from the 1890s to the 1920s. Simon Nicholas‘ set is simple but flexible, showing in turns a lush Art Deco London apartment and the wisteria-adorned garden of Jack’s country estate.
Adam Nichols and Matt Strachan‘s vision is an ambitious one, and we like ambition. Setting the otherwise rigid tale in the 1920s allows for a freer physicality. The addition of modern music sung and played live (with varying results) by the cast recalls Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 film The Great Gatsby. When it works it is rip-roaringly funny. Anna Franklin’s Lady Bracknell (the austere matriarch holding all the power over our hero’s future matrimony) singing Lizzo ‘Blame it on my Juice’ is one such moment. Eminem and Beyoncé’s songs explode on the stage – certainly unexpected!
Unfortunately, muddled between all this ambition is a slight disconnect from the story. The focus on the humour and innuendo of the script means that a lot of historical reality and believability are sacrificed. Wilde is a masterful wordsmith, and to labour his prose risks losing a lot of the subtle meaning. There is a tendency here to throw everything at the wall. A random tap section along with blocking issues means that the gamble doesn’t always pay off.
Nevertheless, some actors sparkle. Franklin as Lady Bracknell has the lion’s share of the epigrams. Commanding the room, she calls the shots; she understands the flow of language, inhabits the character expertly, and keeps us laughing throughout. Emilia Harrild as her daughter Gwendolen carries much of the vocal work in her low and sultry tone. Her assertive, dominating interpretation of the character brings to mind Greta Garbo in her suits. Although she does (like a lot of the cast) fall into melodrama at times, it is a novel spin on the love interest.
The production focuses on the power of the female characters and the effeminacy and louche nature of the males (rightfully so). Fulton as Jack/Ernest gives the most stripped-back performance. He’s believable but looks a bit out of step with the larger-than-life characters around him. Charlie Clee as his friend and fellow trickster Algernon has a playful twinkle, although overdoes his physicality. A scene where they battle over a plate of muffins brings out the best in both and is a highlight.
Emma Wright and Jon Bonner as the governess and the local preacher steal a scene, as they sip whisky on one of the mounds high above the stage. Perhaps surprisingly, this and another moment are the only times the unique topography is used.
The predisposition for melodrama already mentioned is an overall problem and trickles down throughout the production, but the aim to amuse is hit with abundant energy and gusto. Live music, Charlestons, witty repartee, with views of the rolling British countryside are all significant positives. This production will keep you guessing.
Written by: Oscar Wilde
Directed by: Adam Nichols, Matt Strachan
Produced by: OVO
The Importance of Being Earnest plays at The Roman Theatre of Verulamium until 17 July.