Bruiser Theatre Company have boldly reinterpreted The Importance of Being Earnest, placing the playwright Oscar Wilde as constant onlooker to his own farce with its themes of confused identities, social rituals and triviality.
Seven performers with identikit cream outfits climb about the Escher-like staircases before resting on their chaise-longues in dark eyries overlooking the central ground-level stage. Some of Wilde’s already lyrical dialogue is set to music and the voices of the cast punctuate the script with their musical commentary on the action. Matthew Reeve accompanies from a piano at the side of the stage. Whenever a character is required on the main stage, the relevant Wilde clone slips down the stairs, and dons a simple accessory to take on their new role.
Ernest (played by Joseph O’Malley) leads a double life, split between his country residence where he looks after his ward Cecily Cardew and the city where he lets his hair down. Two names, two identities, and the seeds are quickly sown for later confusion. Algy (Joseph Derrington) interrogates his friend and explores their individual duplicities, before being interrupted by the arrival of Ernest’s sweetheart Gwendolyn (Samuel Townsend) and her hostile mother Lady Bracknell (Ross Anderson-Doherty).
“More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn't read.”
So many of the sayings attributed to Wilde in everyday parlance come from this play. It’s full – and fool – of sage advice, truisms and smartass adages.
With a pre-existing lack of strong female stage roles, performing The Importance of Being Earnest with an all male cast was always going to raise questions about Bruiser Theatre Company’s decision. Artistically, director Lisa May’s gamble pays off.
The courting scenes between Ernest and Gwendolyn felt like I was watching two plays at once. In one a light-footed and feminine Gwendolyn (portrayed incredibly consistently by Townsend throughout with a beautiful falsetto voice) was dancing around her beau; in the other two gay men were performing a mating ritual.
All the while, the mini-Wilde’s were sitting up high looking down on the action. The additional layer of confusion adds richness to the original text rather than dragging it down, and while it is never allowed to dominate the action, enough contemporary questions are fired off alongside the original cultural commentary to warrant the single gendered casting.
Bruiser have thrown a lot at this production. The music accentuates the absurd. The set has hidden gimmicks. A slow motion sequence garners extra laughs. The lighting cue list must be laborious to follow given the constantly changing focus of activity. Occasionally it all becomes exhausting to watch, particularly the stand-up-sit-down near-slapstick sequence in the third act
Full of laughs due to the absurdity and surreal sequences, Bruiser’s The Importance of Being Earnest lifts the late nineteenth century play into the twenty first century, adding musical pizazz, some ambiguity and plenty of entertainment into this confident production.
The Importance of Being Earnest runs at The MAC in Belfast until Saturday 15 April.