(answered by New Wolsey artistic director Peter Rowe)) We have recently programmed a number of contemporary comedies with great success and felt it was time to offer our audience a classic comedy. Apart from being well-known and-much loved, The Importance of Being Earnest provides a picture of a society in which appearance is more important than reality, the look is more valued than the substance, and image is everything. Beneath the trappings of a witty farce, Wilde takes a swipe at a society obsessed with the superficial. His celebration and critique of style over substance, seemed particularly appropriate to our current obsessions.
How do you think a 21st century audience will react to it?
While the play is obviously a period piece, without rewriting it hugely I don't believe you'd want to set it anywhere other than as its original 1895. It is also a great reflection on the foibles of human beings. There are still many overbearing mothers who want the best for their daughters and so vet any suitors that might come knocking. There are many 18 year-old girls who write fantasies in their diaries and there are many men who would go to more extreme lengths than changing their name in order to get the girl of their dreams. I think the audience will accept that in this world the rules of society were different and enjoy the characters' struggles to overcome the obstacles that get in the way of what they want. We can all relate to that. On top of that I imagine Wilde's absurd logic and sense of humour will amuse them greatly.
Does it have any relevance to modern society (other than being a first-rate comedy)?
I believe nearly all well-written plays relate to modern society if you're prepared to look for the parallels. It may be true that we no longer live in a world of calling cards and cucumber sandwiches, but Gwendolen’s and Cecily's obsession with marrying a man because he's called Earnest (the only really safe name) could just as easily be transferred to many young girls’ current obsession with snagging a footballer. The society "niceties" may not exist in the same way, but the mating rituals that concern how attractive a girl is and how much money a man earns and which "clubs" he can get in to are still rife in the 21st century. And isn't it great to still be able to laugh at that?
How have you selected the cast?
In the usual way. The cast were auditioned and these guys were the people I thought best to play the parts. I was looking for people who have a good sense of comedy but also a vulnerability as it can be very easy to make these characters two-dimensional, and I wanted to be able to do more than that. I've worked with some of them before and would hope to work with all of them again.
What other productions have you directed recently?
I've just had a baby so my boy Samuel was the last production I was involved in (he featured regularly in tea breaks during rehearsals and even watched the dress rehearsal – six months seems a great age to start his theatrical education). Prior to that, I directed a promenade production of A Christmas Carol under the arches at Southwark Playhouse, Daisy Pulls It Off at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff and was associate director on the national tour of Gods of Carnage. For the last three years I've been the artistic director of Southwark Playhouse.
How did you become a director?
I trained as a stage manager and was company manager on ART many moons ago. While there the wonderful David Pugh and Matthew Warchus entrusted me with looking after the show and directing the understudies – the more they let me be artistic, the less I wanted to pay the wages. In a moment of madness I left the show and the brilliant Sam Walters took me on as a trainee director at the Orange Tree in Richmond.
What productions have you planned after this one?
I'm currently working with Fin Kennedy and Hydrocracker on a new site- specific piece for Brighton Festival. We've previously had great success there with The New World Order (a selection of Pinter's short plays) in Brighton Town Hall and The Erpingham Camp on Brighton Pier. This new piece is being written by the hugely-talented Kennedy about the NHS and will hopefully play in one of the hospitals in Brighton.