The Importance of Being Earnest

 

Gaiety Theatre, Dublin

There is a hum of expectation in the luxurious London home of society gadabout Algernon Moncrief as he awaits the arrival of a very special guest – his aunt. There is much the same sensation among the audience for Rough Magic’s new production of Oscar Wilde’s comedy of manners at the Gaiety, who have been stoked through months of publicity into a blaze of anticipation for the same visitor.

For Algy’s friend Earnest, who maintains a double life between the city and the country (where he is known as Jack), Lady Bracknell represents a formidable obstacle to his happiness. When she has denied the hand of her daughter Gwendolyn (a very vampish Aoife Duffin) to a man who can only trace his origins to a handbag abandoned in Victoria Station, Rory Keenan’s deadpan Earnest appraises her thus: “She is a monster, without being a myth.”

With Stockard Channing, however, it seems to be the other way around. A star performer with top-billing in a supporting role, her aura precedes her, but in the flesh she seems muted, less acid, adequate in the role without relishing it. Even that famous line, “A handbag?” is throwaway, delivered as a gasp of reeling disbelief.

In most other aspects of Lynne Parker’s production, the play is saved from over-familiarity not by radical intervention but by fresh intonation. The play may be an airtight assembly of razor-sharp witticisms, diamond-cut epigrams and fiendishly clever situations, but Parker’s cast still finds room to manoeuvre.

Rory Nolan, having a ball as the merrily debauched Algy, lounges around in pyjamas spouting fruity aphorisms, but nothing is more subversive than the way he sips champagne while waiting to shake Jack’s hand.

Like that beautifully louche gesture, the production is at its strongest when it matches the decorous wit of the words with nimble physical performance. Eleanor Methven, who simply steals the show as idle governess Miss Prism, embellishes her lines with knowing fillips that might appear hammy in other hands, but actually delve deep into this play. Just as Jack and Algernon come to live out their lies, or the fantasies recorded in Cecily’s (Gemma Reeves) diary come true, so Prism’s sentimental belief in the conventions of fiction will dictate the outcome of the play.

Unlike recent versions, Parker puts no subtextual deconstruction or added commentary in this Earnest. But there are often hints at something more, particularly in the amusingly clownish figure of Peter Daly’s country servant Merriman, who seems to get his hair done in Wonderland and first appears for a carnivalesque scene change on roller skates. Sadly, the moment is never developed, as though the idea was abandoned, leaving Paul O’Mahony’s inventive sliding puzzle of a set to contain all the illusions.

Channing makes a bravura reappearance, largely credited to her outré costume, a hot pink Belle Époque number, which may have come to designer Eimer Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh in a fever dream.

But the still glittering comedy of the play and the artful machinations of its conclusion depend on an even ensemble rather than a star attraction. For that to happen, the production needs to do something that the box office won’t: to let us forget about the importance of being Bracknell. Until June 19