The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the most widely performed plays of all time; a likely candidate for any fringe catalogue. There are two versions at this year’s festival alone. Its one-liners are famous and difficult to perform freshly, so it was an ambitious project for the young Witness Theatre to undertake. Sadly, though their enthusiasm was creditable, their rendition of the play was shallow and largely failed to impress the audience.
The show was appropriately set in Redroaster Coffee House, where the audience were served a complimentary cake and cup of tea, as the cast mingled with us before the show began. It was a nice touch. There was no stage, so the play took place entirely at the same level as the audience.
The performance was dogged by a hastiness of delivery. Though Wilde intended for the play to be quick-paced, the actors often spilled some of its most famous quips, as though they were skirting over them for fear of cliché. This made the dialogue seem unnatural and overly rehearsed. There were moments when they pulled it off – one line by Lady Bracknell had me struggling for breath – but they were too few in a play of pure comedy.
Occasionally, the actors resorted to a suggestiveness which – at the risk of sounding pretentious for my twenty years – was off-puttingly juvenile: Cecily Cardew and Gwendolen Fairfax repeatedly sighed Earnest’s name with a sexual yearning that was often taken to uncomfortable extremes, washing over any morsel of linguistic subtlety in Wilde’s script.
For its fame,The Importance of Being Earnest is always a difficult play to perform. Its superficial characters may be easy to enact, but they are not easy to enact successfully. This production had its charms, but ultimately it was subsumed into a mass of adaptations, finding nothing unique on which to hook itself.