The value of Earnest Being
Before 21 March
Glasgow’s Tron Theatre
Tour until 28th March
From MARK BROWN
Oscar Wilde (although Wilde’s fellow Irish playwright Martin McDonagh takes him very close to that honor) is easily the greatest comedic playwright to write for the British stage since Shakespeare. His most famous remains the final play by Wilde, The Value of Being Earnest, which premiered in London in February 1895 (just months before the persecuted writer was imprisoned).
The delicious comedy by Wilde focuses on the escapades of Jack Worthing (a.k.a. “Earnest”) and Algernon Moncrieff, blue-blooded boys who create all kinds of mischief by “bunburying” (i.e., fleeing the city for the country under false pretenses). The new production for Perth Theatre by Lu Kemp (with famous comedian and actress Karen Dunbar as the formidable aristocrat Lady Bracknell) mimics the play, with multiple roles taken by most of the five-member cast.
This theatrical bunburying begins in earnest, ahem, when Daniel Cahill appears in short order as both Lane (the servant of Algernon) and Jack at the beginning of Act I. The ingenious use of a speaking tube circumvents the fact that Wilde allows Lane and Jack to be in the room together for most of the act (which allows Algernon to communicate with the absent Lane while Cahill plays Jack onstage).
Clever and amusing is this initial character swap. When Caroline Deyga (who plays the daughter of Lady Bracknell, the fragrant Gwendolen Fairfax) appears, however, as the unfortunate school teacher and writer Miss Prism, and almost everyone plays the unfortunate Reverend Chasuble, the doubling, even tripling, of roles becomes a joy rather than a distraction.
That’s a big shame, because there are some fine performers in Kemp’s production, especially Dunbar (a knowing, arch Lady Bracknell) and Grant O’Rourke (a deliciously mendacious Algernon). Bear in mind, however, that in world drama, Dunbar wrestles with one of the trickiest short sentences.
The iconic moment when Lady Bracknell expresses her surprise and dismay at the discovery of the roots of Jack (he was found abandoned as a child in a piece of luggage at London’s Victoria Station) will forever be synonymous with the performance of Edith Evans in the 1952 film by Anthony Asquith. With unforgettably drawn-out vowels and similarly unforgettable ridicule, Evans’ utterance of the words “a handbag!” challenges actors to either mimic the legendary expression or find an entirely new way to pronounce it.
Dunbar and Kemp opted for the line’s brief, sharp, almost dismissive, and definitely anti-evangelical pronunciation. It is a perfectly understandable solution, but it leaves one feeling unsatisfied, much like the plate of cucumber sandwiches (intended for Lady Bracknell) that Algernon ruins at the beginning of the play.
As Cecily Cardew, Jack’s adolescent ward, Amy Kennedy is the impatient, impressionable young Victorian lady, while Deyga nails Gwendolen’s sophisticated cynicism. As Jack, a man of land, riches and very little else, Cahill looks good, but his acting lacks the versatility required.
The semi-minimalist, art-deco-like collection of Jamie Vartan proves to be flexible enough. It is just a shame that Kemp subverts Wilde’s satire with a character-swapping farce of her own by playing the play with just five actors. Yeah, and the least they tell about the ill-considered, overtly populist musical ending of the director (which drags the famous last line of Wilde through the mud), the better.
If Perth’s Earnest is frustrated, in MAIM, a co-production between Glasgow-based Gàidhlig company Theatre Gu Leòr and the Whyte musical party, there are grievances of a different nature. The play deals with “panic” and was co-written by the young, four-member cast of stage actors Alasdair C. Whyte, Elspeth Turner and Evie Waddell and composer/musician Ross Whyte (the best English version of the Gàidhlig word “maim”).
MAIM consists of a series of interconnected vignettes staged by Theatre Gu Leòr Artistic Director Muireann Kelly and performed in Gàidhlig (with English supertitles). Performed in spoken word, British Sign Language, music, song, and movement (supported by Lewis Den Hertog’s video projections), it puts together the interests of young people within the Gàidhealtachd, both for their language and for the environmental future of the Highlands and Islands (in these times of climate crisis).
With historical eras, poetic observations on the landscape are juxtaposed.