On a blisteringly hot June 5th, I found myself at Trinity College with a glass of sparkling water in hand and a string quartet booming out whilst giddily waiting for The Importance of Being Earnest to begin. It felt hugely important as it was not only my first time attending a play in Oxford, but my first live performance in an achingly long time. There was much to expect and much to delight upon.
To set the scene: I entered into a walled garden, covered in brilliant green foliage, and found my way to one of the few seats. It was an intimate affair. A table had been set up on the far right of the garden which held bread, cakes and more, the addition of real cucumber sandwiches and muffins seeming to be of the utmost importance. On the far left sat the string quartet, Pachelbel’s Canon at the ready. A simplistic set of a chaise longue and several chairs stood in the centre. Nothing immediately stood out, but it needn’t have done – the actors and the setting brought it to life. This understated set up was a brilliant choice from the directors, Rosie Robinson and Costi Levy, as it let me enjoy the gardens and contributed perfectly to the atmosphere of the play. Slightly off-centre there was a break in the hedge; from this hole came Lane the Butler (George Diggle) to announce the start of the play.
The first half of the play is set in London and brings Algernon (Cormac Diamond), and Jack Worthing (Henry Calcutt), to our attention. Algernon and Worthing have what appears to be a very natural relationship, yet they very much enjoy getting in each other’s heads, particularly Algernon. Diamond struck this balance between friendship and petty feud perfectly, knowing exactly when and where Wilde intended emphasis to be placed for comedic effect.
Lady Bracknell (Gracie Oddie-James) and Gwendolen Fairfax (Abi Watkinson) then enter and the dramatic irony hits us instantly as we discover that Fairfax has fallen for Jack in the knowledge that he is called Ernest. The directors’ decision to make the female characters very independent as well as desirable worked perfectly; it was great to watch within a narrative that is governed by marriage, name and fortune. There is altogether a sense that the men dote and rely upon the women rather than it being the other way round. This Wilde play has definitely been brought into the 21st century.
The energy of the cast continues into the second half where the set changes ever so slightly as we move to the country. We are introduced to Cecily Cardew (Grace de Souza), who throws a massive spanner in the works and injects an innocence and child-like curiosity into the play. As Gwendolen and Cecily come to realise that they have a true alliance in their shared interest in men called Ernest, their characters feel very strong alongside each other. Their speech begins to parallel each other’s and they walk arm in arm. This transformation in their relationship from petty feud to child-like friendship is very entertaining to watch and feels like a clever decision on the part of the directors.
Comedy is something that this production does not lack; almost every other line gets a chuckle from the audience. Oddie-James’s Lady Bracknell was a sheer delight to watch: she is the classic pushy mother caricature, much like a Mrs Bennet or a Lady Tremaine figure. The forcefulness in her questioning on family, connections and wealth screamed social climber and I loved every second of it.
With some insider knowledge, I found out that the costumes, designed by Chloe Dootson-Graube, were ready-made, then adapted with paint. Algernon’s suit, for example, was grey before it was emerald green, something I have never seen before and which gave the costumes a kind of awkwardness in line with Wilde’s characters. This technique created a unity between the cast, especially with the coordinating colour scheme: purple, green, pink and orange. On one hand garish, the use of colour grew on me and ultimately felt very well-considered. Each couple, Jack and Gwendolen and Algernon and Cecily, had their own set of colours and this kept an understated divide between the two. Not to mention, they all popped in the sunshine.
The final line of the play, “I’ve now realised for the first time in my life the vital importance of being earnest”, was welcomed by a slight delay in reaction from the audience. Not the ideal response, I understand. However, I believe that this was by no means down to its delivery, rather, due to the fact that no one wished for the whole experience to be over. I think I speak for the whole audience when I say I left feeling full of joy, and a resounding feeling that nothing should ever be taken too seriously. It was an afternoon of pure indulgence, more than I could have asked for on a hot Trinity afternoon.