Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

A rare incarnation

The Importance of Being Earnest

Nomadic Players , Coliseum, Aberystwyth , February 15, 2002
The Importance of Being Earnest is certainly not a play that is produced infrequently. At the 2001 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, there were five different productions of Oscar Wilde’s 1895 “trivial comedy for serious people,” including one which was produced in Russian translation by a theatre company from Belarus. The familiarity of British theatregoers with the play is also evidenced by its many parodies, including Tom Stoppard’s Travesties (1974) and, most recently, in 1998, Mark Ravenhill’s The Handbag. On February 14-17, the Nomadic Players, the amateur drama society associated with the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, presents The Importance in a rare incarnation: the space in which they have chosen to stage the play is the Ceredigion Museum, formerly the Coliseum Theatre.

In the architecture of the Museum, it is still possible to see the nineteenth-century theatre, which was actually built before 1837 but is identified as “Victorian” in local legend. In using this space, the Nomadic Players intend to give Aberystwyth theatregoers some sense of what it may have felt like to see Wilde’s play in something like the sort of theatre for which it was written. Of course, like most nineteenth-century London theatres, the St. James’ Theatre, where Importance opened in 1895, had a gargantuan auditorium, whereas the Coliseum is smaller and allows most of the audience to see the actors without the use of opera glasses, that stereotypical essential Victorian theatregoing accessory. However, the Coliseum does have a proscenium stage with a rigid arch, russet velvet curtains, and wooden silhouettes of women in large unwieldy hats filling its U-shaped balcony. The Nomadic Players’ production complements the space nicely: their set consists of garish, mostly red, ornate antique furniture set in front of imaginatively painted, complex, but inescapably two-dimensional backdrops depicting the interiors of Algernon’s and the title character’s houses (the same backdrop for both, unfortunately) and the garden. Director Simon Lewis-Evans adopts a style of staging that works within the space: the characters use big gestures and stay well downstage, ensuring visibility despite being far away from and three or four feet above the audience’s eyes.

As Algernon, Neil Jennings is perfect. He moves in poses, but without acknowledging the audience except in his two soliloquies, showing off instead for the other characters onstage. He also looks at other characters when talking to them, but looks away at a distant point in space when others are talking to him; this shows the other characters exactly how much he values what they have to say. As Cecily, Sadie Whitcombe is also perfect, and their scene in Act II, in which Algernon loses control of her rewriting of their lives, appeared fresh and gripping. Most of the cast play their roles well, although in all cases reactions could have been delivered a little faster than they were. Louisa Norman as Lady Bracknell was another standout among the cast, although at some moments (“.. a HANDBAG?!?!”) she seemed to be playing a caricature of the way the role has often been played, rather than the character herself, but this seemed strangely right, as this Iron Lady, like most of the other characters, is the shell of a person playing a role in real life.

Some of the costumes were also not entirely historically accurate—hair scrunchies and what looked like a Regency dress disrupted the picture a little, but it would probably have been difficult for the Nomadic Players to access enough period costumes and the things they were able to find seemed to suit the characters individually and to work in the setting.

There are a lot of subversive elements of this play, particularly in its consideration of class and gender issues, and its exploration of the question of whether self-fashioning (as Stephen Greenblatt put it in his 1980 study of several Renaissance writers) is possible or advisable, and if so, if the self-made person is the kind of lie that people need to exist in a reality that all too often does not resemble the romance novel that the governess Miss Prism writes and “abandons.” This production didn’t really explore any of these issues in depth, but judging from their laughter, the audience seemed to enjoy what they saw, and I am sure that this project brought a lot of people into the Museum who had not been there before.

Reviewed by: Rebecca Nesvet

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