There’s a good reason The Importance of Being Earnest remains one of the most popular comedies in British theatre. It’s a very silly story about ridiculous people doing utterly implausible things, and yet for all its joyous irreverence, the play still has plenty to say about society, class and the judgments we make about each other based on little more than a name or birthplace.
It’s this last that most informs Pan Productions’ unique and memorable adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s classic. The company’s first production in English, its cast is made up entirely of immigrants whose first languages include French, Turkish and Greek. These actors may never have had to confess to being found in a handbag at Victoria Station, but they’ve all certainly had to explain and perhaps even justify where they come from, probably on more than one occasion. So it’s through their eyes that we see this very English comedy unfold, cucumber sandwiches and all, as friends Jack (Louis Pottier Arniaud) and Algernon (Duncan Rowe) pursue two women who know exactly what they want – and, more importantly, what they don’t – in a suitable husband.
There’s no denying that the vision of director Aylin Bozok is an unusual one, though that’s by no means a bad thing – after so many “traditional” versions of the play, a fresh take is more than welcome. The modern dress production retains Wilde’s script, albeit peppered with moments where the cast slip back into their native languages, but beyond that this interpretation bears little resemblance to the genteel Victorian drama we know. It’s still a comedy, yet visually and tonally the play is much darker than we’re used to; there’s a decidedly gothic feel to the production that’s unexpected, to say the least. The pace is also considerably slower, though there’s never any danger of the audience’s attention wandering – the deliberation that goes into each and every movement is fascinating, and ultimately proves to be a source of comedy in itself. (Who knew watching someone painstakingly lower themselves on to a sofa could raise so many laughs?)
Another intriguing, if slightly confusing, aspect is the suggestion that the characters, for all their wealth and social standing, have no control over their own story. Instead, that power lies with the omnipresent and slightly sinister character of the maid (Nea Cornér), who encompasses both manservants, Lane and Merriman, while also filling the role of a Greek chorus and a puppeteer who manoeuvres the characters on, off and around the stage. While this is an interesting take, at times it feels like a bit of a distraction – due in no small part to Nea Cornér, whose performance is completely compelling throughout. The problem is that the production is already so rich in detail that we have more than enough to look at and absorb, and by adding another element to it, we find ourselves at times not knowing quite where to look.
The cast are uniformly excellent, taking recognisable characters and breathing fresh life into them; particular highlights among many include Glykeria Dimou’s feisty teenager Cecily and Pinar Öğün’s perfectly poised Gwendolen. The actors are all clearly enjoying themselves with Wilde’s use of language, and this in turn allows the audience to hear the familiar text afresh. Some of the more famous lines are played down – Lady Bracknell’s appalled exclamation of “a handbag?!” is delivered by Ece Özdemiroğlu as little more than an incredulous and even mildly amused murmur – while others are elevated to new significance through deliberate mispronunciation and subsequent gentle correction by the rest of the cast.
Though it at times veers towards trying to do too much, this unique new take on The Importance of Being Earnest certainly hits the mark in terms of both entertainment and intrigue. It’s also a very polished and precise production, where every aspect has clearly been given careful consideration – which in turn leaves the audience with plenty to think about on the ride home and beyond.
The Importance of Being Earnest – played by immigrants is at Tower Theatre until 18th January.