The Importance of Being Earnest review: Wilde wins again

As his parade of double lives spills out of the closet, Oscar Wilde peers down on a production that is almost entirely at his service

Lisa Dwyer Hogg and Marty Rea. Photograph: Pat Redmond

Lisa Dwyer Hogg and Marty Rea. Photograph: Pat Redmond

 

The Importance of Being Earnest

Gate Theatre, Dublin

***

Double lives abound in Oscar Wilde’s peerless comedy. At its centre is a man who is Earnest in the town, and Jack in the country (Marty Rea), whose decadent friend Algernon (Rory Nolan) uses a false alibi for regular disappearances, and whose young ward Cecily (Lorna Quinn) records a parallel existence in her diary. Others escape, routinely, into a sensational world of fiction. For all the glittering epigrams of Wilde’s creation, its most subversive and effervescent conceit is to show characters living a lie until it finally becomes true.

That extends to its author, whose own double life was infamously exposed during this play’s original run, and whose image becomes a large apparition imprinted on Francis O’Connor’s sparing set, peering down on his creations. Under that gaze, set details are revealed through a series of sliding panels and opening doors – Algy’s dandyish wardrobe, limitless supplies of champagne, rolling country hills, a wood-panelled library – as though Wilde’s world had emerged from the closet.

Director Patrick Mason’s dependable new production may wonder, though, if this familiar play has much left to reveal. As Lady Bracknell, Deirdre Donnelly is saddled most with the weight of expectation, choosing to deliver her famously withering line not as a trill, but a guffaw: “A handbag?” It makes for an oddly flat “monster”, her fearsomeness conveyed better through Rea’s consummate squirming than her own stentorian delivery.

As the ostentatious gadabout Algernon (counterbalanced by Bosco Hogan’s nicely underplayed butler Lane), Nolan has most fun, and so provides most fun: the way he purses his lips, like a platypus bill, and steeples his eyebrows when offering his hand to Rea in imitation of his nonexistent brother is priceless. Rea is just as assured with the music of the text – their effortless repartee makes the witticisms seem freshly considered – and matches Jack’s romantic contortions with an equally spry physicality, at one point doubling over in relief when he finally tells the truth. (For which, of course, he is immediately punished.)

Elsewhere, though, efforts to inscribe additional comedy into the margins feel laboured, such as Mark Lambert’s lisping reverend, or Des Keogh’s doddery servant, Merriman, whose embellishments undermine the exchange between Lisa Dwyer Hogg’s knowing Gwendolen and Lorna Quinn’s ingenuous Cecily, and seem to distrust the material.

Otherwise, the production is quite winningly at Wilde’s service. Like his set, O’Connor’s costumes are striking but never distracting, and Mason similarly keeps the stage lively but uncluttered, letting the words ring clear as a bell. It repays attention, where less burnished lines feel more revealing, constantly re-evaluating the status of marriage in a production that ends, archly, with wedding bells, or sounding grace notes about “ready money” and a woman’s fortune as “solid qualities” among people whose identities are extended performances on borrowed credit.

In Earnest, there is no joke more pleasing than lives contorting into the stuff of fanciful fiction, which makes Marion O’Dwyer’s fine turn as the fiction-obsessed Miss Prism so enjoyable, and why, even without his sentinel image in the background, you feel the presence of the writer. Oscar will always be the star of this show.

  • Until January 30th
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