JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman, 14.11.15
3 stars ***
IN AN AGEING society, there are many ways of dealing with the fact that so many existing plays centre on the romantic entanglements of the young; you can, for example, write wry and rueful new plays about romance among the elderly, and hope that audiences approaching the same age will lap them up.
There’s none of that nonsense, though, in this jolly and memorable touring production of The Importance Of Being Earnest, either for the astonishing company of eight leading British actors performing the play – whose combined ages amount to almost 550 years – or for their fictional counterparts in the Bunbury Company of Players, a band of retired thespians who get together every year to create a much-loved traditional production of Oscar Wilde’s greatest comedy.
There are moments, during Lucy Bailey’s production, when I could frankly have done without this play-within-a-play device, which features extra material penned by Simon Brett. With Nigel Havers, Martin Jarvis and the great Sian Phillips offering a veritable master-class of comic acting in the key roles of Algernon, Earnest and Lady Bracknell, it might have been more exciting simply to go for Wilde’s great text without explanation or apology, and let the audience make what it would of the obvious incongruities. William Dudley’s country-house set – conjuring up a rehearsal at the home of two of the actors – is downright annoying in its cosy conventionality. And while I was interested to see how middle-aged actresses Carmen Du Sautoy and Christine Kavanagh would handle the roles of teenage beauties Gwendolen and Cecily, I really didn’t need to know that Kavanagh’s Ellen – a gorgeous and super-smart Cecily – was conducting a surreptitious affair with Nigel Havers’s Dickie, playing Algernon.
It speaks volumes for the wit and elegance of Wilde’s great play that it triumphantly survives this slightly awkward treatment; experience counts, and there’s a rare joy in seeing actors as seasoned as Havers and Jarvis sparring their way through Wilde’s superb opening dialogue, or Havers and Kavanagh making light work of the absurdist romance between Algernon and Cecily.
If the trend for older actors playing young roles is to continue, though, we need to consider how far we expect audiences simply to accept what Dickie calls “the illusion of theatre”; and how far we need the kind of framing devices that can open up endless possibilities, but sometimes only seem to patronise the audience, by offering one explanation too many.
King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, final performances today; and the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 24-28 November.