Theatre in Wales

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Polished & Sleek- But Let Oscar Be

At Mappa Mundi

Mappa Mundi- The Importance of Being Earnest , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , May 8, 2008
At Mappa Mundi by Mappa Mundi- The Importance of Being Earnest The cemetery of Pere Lachaise is last home to a host of artistic giants. Pilgrims are to be seen daily at the tombs of Balzac and Bizet, Pisarro and Proust. The memorials are revered and pristine, but there is one exception. At the tomb of Oscar Wilde it is practice for the most adoring visitors to smear their lips thick with lipstick and leave the print of a kiss on Jacob Epstein's memorial. The number of lip-prints runs to well over a thousand.

As a form of tribute it must be close to unique and brings to mind Wilde’s own late lines from “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” “Yet each man kills the thing he loves… Some do it with a bitter look, Some with a flattering word, The coward does it with a kiss…”

The authorities at the Pere Lachaise obviously feel tolerant towards the behaviour of the lovers of Wilde; I felt in a similar position seeing Mappa Mundi’s new production of “The Importance of Being Earnest.”

This is not the brittle comedy beloved of amateur companies. Director Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones clearly holds it in the highest respect. “Perfect” is an attribute he gives it. Paul Valery’s epithet on writing a poem “never completed, merely abandoned” is, I think, closer to the reality of art-making.

In the best of productions the director works like the divinity, manifest in the beauty and harmony of her works, immanent but invisible. See Steve Fisher at work on Ian Rowlands’ current “Blink” for an intelligence that is both ever-present but unshowy.

The director here draws the attention at two levels. First, there are performance flourishes reminiscent of music hall and Irving-like melodrama. Silent movie-type placards introduce scenes. This is fine, reminders if needed that 1895 was also the time of music hall’s peak and the fledgling bioscope.

At a second level, however, Merriman the maid is given some comic horseplay, a rattling tray, a piece of cake stuck in the jaws for want of anywhere better to put it. But it jars. The directorial point may be that life in the country is looser and less socially strangled than the city. But a look at any documentary source- Ronald Blythe’s “Akenfield”, for example- will show that the treatment of servants was as cursory and dismissive there as any city mansion. To subtract from the cruelty of Wilde’s world is to do it less than justice.

In the second act there is some commotion over a blot in Cecily’s diary which may or not be Wilde. When at the close Jack is desperately seeking to clarify his parentage the Collins Complete Works of 1948 has him scanning the Army Lists. Maybe there are several versions but Mappa Mundi has the cast searching a variety of books including a railway timetable. Dialogue made up to add to Wilde’s? Now that would be an outrage to scandalise Lady Bracknell, not much better than being born in a handbag and left in Victoria Station.

A pity, because these elements distracted from a mad and extravagant set, a great eighteen by twelve foot gilt frame, and performances that truly sparkled. Christine Pritchard’s Lady Bracknell was appropriately imperious. Meilyr Sion’s Jack, looking at times like a second cousin of David Cameron, had a great double act with Liam Tobin’s Algy. Their characters had the luscious, long, languid vowels of their time and age so that even the crispest of words extended to two or three syllables. The meeting between Mali Tudno Jones’ Gwendolen and Lynne Seymour’s Cecily, instant friendship that fast disintegrates, was simply delicious.

A production of many pleasures then, but more heed to act two, scene two of “Hamlet”. The play is the thing.

“The Importance of Being Earnest” tours Taliesin Arts Centre, Swansea (May 8 & 9); Theatr Stiwt, Rhosllanerchrugog (May 13); Sherman Theatre, Cardiff (May 14 & 15); Barry Memorial Hall (May 16) and Wyeside Arts Centre, Builth Wells (May 17)

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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