Review: The Importance of Being Honest

Set 20 years after Earnest, Billie Traynor’s imagined meeting of Wilde’s sisterly characters finds a world in flux and lives in stasis

Bewley’s Cafe Theatre, Dublin


It takes a particular confidence, and more than a little nerve, for a writer to invite comparison to Oscar Wilde. That, however, is the engaging proposition of Billie Traynor's new play for Bewley's, which imagines a meeting 20 years after the events of The Importance of Being Earnest between the two women who began as competitors in love.

Now, in 1913, Noelle Brown’s gossamer-light Cecily Moncrief busies herself in interpretive dance, painting and empowering mantras (“Every day in every way, I am becoming better and better”) while she receives an unexpected visit from “the other Mrs Moncrief”, Gwendolen. Traynor herself plays the latter as an imperious conservative, drawn up like a duchess. Still casually condescending and spilling apercus, Gwendolen holds few insights into the activities of her husband, now a politician, and his progressive legislation. “Knowledge of one’s husband has been the destruction of many a marriage,” she comments airily.


Such wit isn't entirely Wildean, but nor is Traynor solely occupied with coining epigrams. If Earnest was "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People" which contained a more complicated view of "bunburying" men leading double lives, Traynor is exploring a splitting female identity at a time of deep social change. Browne gives a gentle performance as a woman pursuing modernity through art, bohemianism and suffragette pamphlets, only dimly aware that her privileged life has no struggle. Traynor gets most of the best lines playing a character whose viewpoints are sliding into obsolescence, fearfully aware of where she stands in a generational succession.

At a point of deep shock, Gwendolen wonders if she has become her mother, which, given that her mother is Lady Bracknell, is a deeply unsettling consideration. "Perhaps all women become like their mothers," Cecily sympathises. "What a tragedy." It's an artful inversion of Wilde's famous witticism, just as the modest production, directed by Liam Halligan, would turn the original's character dynamic around. In the end, though, it strikes you not so much as a comic update of a classic, but as a new play peering deep into the past, to find a poignant picture of lives in stasis. Ends September 6

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about theatre, television and other aspects of culture