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Review Round-up: Critics Wilde for Park Earnest?

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In his second season as artistic director of the Open Air Theatre, Timothy Sheader this year decided to experiment with the usual programming format by introducing Oscar Wilde into the mix, in addition to the usual Shakespeare and classic musical fare (See News, 9 Jan 2009). Thus, Irina Brown’s revival of The Importance of Being Earnest opened last Wednesday (8 July 2009, previews from 3 July) for a brief stint until 25 July in the Regent’s Park repertory.

In Wilde’s 1895 comedy, prim-and-proper Jack Worthing is in love with the equally prim-and-proper Gwendolen Fairfax. His friend Algernon Moncrieff is in love with Cecily Cardew, Jack’s young ward. But both Gwendolen and Cecily are in love with a man called Ernest. Meanwhile, Gwendolen’s mother, the imposing Lady Bracknell, is extremely dubious about a story involving a handbag …

Brown’s production, designed by Kevin Knight, stars Dominic Tighe (as Algernon), Ryan Kiggell (Jack), Jo Herbert (Gwendolen), Lucy Briggs Owen (Cecily) and Susan Wooldridge (Lady Bracknell).

Though most critics welcomed Sheader’s attempt to shake up the Open Air’s usual summer proceedings, they disagreed how well Oscar Wilde works outdoors in the midst of Regent’s Park, particularly in Irina Brown’s interpretation, which many found overly stylised and lacking in humour. There was praise for many of the performances, most unanimously for Jo Herbert’s Gwendolen, and for yet another “pleasant evening in the park”

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) - “It’s as though director Irina Brown is shying away from the nitty-gritty of Oscar Wilde, pretending it’s something it isn’t, or perhaps softening us up for a “different” kind of approach. But despite some horrid sounds in the microphoning of actors’ voices, the comedy survives, gaining strength in the last two acts from the exceptional performances of Jo Herbert as Gwendolen and Lucy Briggs Owen as Cecily ... The first is willowy and febrile, with early traces of the gorgon element in her mother Lady Bracknell – played with unapologetic hauteur and weirdly strangulated vowels by Susan Wooldridge – the second vivaciously playful and unusually subversive. They are well matched by Dominic Tighe’s eagerly pukka Algy and Ryan Kiggell’s ponderously explanatory Jack. But it takes time for the evening to gel, partly because of the director’s battle with the outdoors ... Still, this is a valiant attempt to re-cast a great comedy in a new vein of summertime rapture.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) - “The Importance of Being Earnest is the most perfect high comedy in the English language. Unfortunately, it has become almost too familiar, so that connoisseurs are often anticipating or indeed silently mouthing the greatest lines before they are delivered. Even a play as brilliant as this can lose something of its allure with repetition. All credit then to director Irina Brown who in this delightful production persuades us to see and hear the play afresh. It helps that we are in the open air, even on a grey and drizzly night, for the breeze, birdsong and rustling leaves banish the feeling that we are watching a dusty museum piece. Brown refuses to stage the play, as is normally the case, as if it were an almost naturalistic piece of late Victoriana ... Some might dismiss all this as an infernal liberty with Wilde’s masterpiece. I believe it is a breath of fresh air that allows us to experience the play anew. The dazzling, dizzying dialogue in which Wilde treats ‘all trivial things very seriously and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality’ zings, sings and stings in this production ... It is hard to imagine a finer entertainment for an enchanted summer night.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (two stars) – “Everything about this production suffers from rampant inflation ... I see what Brown is trying to do, but I still think it is wrong. The irony of Wilde's play lies in the contrast between the elegance of the characters and the absurdity of what they do: strip them of their supposed savoir faire and you lose that essential counterpoint. Under its shimmering surface, Wilde's play also offers a pungent running commentary on just about every aspect of Victorian life; class, morals, money, marriage and the decline of the aristocracy are just some of a score of topics on which Wilde lightly touches. By abstracting the play from any perceived social reality and treating it as Oscar in Wonderland, Brown's production blunts its satirical edge. Within the chosen style, the actors do a perfectly good job. Jo Herbert, whom I spotted playing Penthesilea at drama school a year ago, reveals true star quality as a Gwendolen who vibrates with sexual ardour under her imposed Victorian decorum ... Susan Wooldridge ... has all the style and hauteur needed for Lady Bracknell, but is sometimes forced to overplay her hand. You could attribute this to the peculiar demands of performing Wilde in the open air. I think it has more to do with Brown's quixotic desire to treat this social comedy as a piece of nonsense.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (two stars) – “It’s good to find the Open Air Theatre, which famously specialises in Shakespeare and modern musicals, varying its summer fare; but, as Irina Brown’s production instantly proclaims, this isn’t your ordinary revival of Wilde ... Immediate and urgent this revival isn’t. Mannered and artificial it is throughout: from Algy Moncrieff’s surreal London flat to John Worthing’s country mansion, which consists of scores of single pink roses, a tiny canal, a bridge, a doll’s house. You might argue that The Importance of Being Earnest is a comedy of manners, packed with characters who seem to know that their smarter quips will end up in every dictionary of quotations. But, sorry, I think more realistic and less self-consciously comic acting produces funnier results. As it is, the performers have surely been encouraged to ditch the subtle and embrace the broad by a director who often draws more attention to her own inventiveness than to character ... There are one or two decent performances, notably from Ryan Kiggell as the earnest Jack of the title and Jo Herbert as the robust object of his dogged attentions; but even they have their over-the-top moments, and Susan Wooldridge’s Lady Bracknell has made her home up there.”

  • Maxie Szalwinska in the Sunday Times (three stars) – “It takes more than soggy seats to wreck an audience’s enjoyment of this ‘trivial comedy for serious people’. Irina Brown’s revival stresses jollity at the expense of astringency and finesse, but still aces enough of Wilde’s aphorisms to send you away grinning. Lady Bracknell, as played by Susan Wooldridge, has a voice that suggests she could hire herself out as a foghorn.”

  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (two stars) – “Irina Brown's production of The Importance of Being Earnest points up the play's modern interest in social shifts and transformations but presenting it in the open air means that some scenes lose the close-quartered intimacy they need. The set poses real problems ... There are some nice stylised touches (such as Cecily's elaborately negligent preparation of Gwendolen's tea) but also some questionable ones, as when Cecily is immured in an oversize doll's house - a clumsy comment on patriarchal oppression ... Susan Wooldridge's Lady Bracknell ... is a puzzling combination of gorgon, jaunty pragmatist and faded coquette, and in her more indignant moments hoots unnervingly. Although Wilde's comic brio ensures that there is plenty to savour, this production lacks charisma and some of the necessary zip.”

  • Sarah Hemming in the Financial Times (three stars) – “From the outset of her nimble production of The Importance of Being Earnest, Irina Brown emphasises the deliberate artificiality of Wilde’s comedy. The actors glide on to the stage before the opening lines and whip out an array of lorgnettes, spectacles and opera glasses, through which they scrutinise the audience.... All this is neat and interesting, but would count for little if the production were not funny. And it is, by and large. Brown’s sprightly cast handle those well-worn lines with aplomb ... The comedy hits its stride when the ladies conduct their catty spat. Lucy Briggs Owen makes a delightful Cecily, mischievous and dogged ... Jo Herbert is splendidly haughty as Gwendolen ... Susan Wooldridge, as Lady Bracknell, is glacially terrifying: a woman who hangs on to her position in society with the tenacity of a bird of prey. She sidesteps the trap of the famous ‘handbag’ line by delivering it with pinched, chilly disbelief, while the feathers on her hat tremble with horror ...The production is hampered by the unpleasant quality of the voice amplification through microphones. But this is a pleasant evening in the park.”
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