Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the touchstones of British theatre. Much performed and adapted – I’ve seen at least fifteen film, TV and stage productions – it is often tempting for companies just to play it straight as the text allows and in period costume.
Pan Productions, made up of cast and creatives whose first language is not English, have attempted something different with the familiar theatre workhorse. Here, the subtitle is performed by immigrants, and this is crucial to their interpretation.
Jack Worthing (Louis Pottier-Arniaud) is a small man, fairly conservatively dressed; his friend Algy Moncrieff (Duncan Rowe) is a showy Goth with black fingernails. Lane, the Moncrieff butler, becomes a maid who conjures up the scene before us and in puppet-mistress style, manipulates the characters.
It is never in doubt that we are watching a play being performed – actors lapse in native language at times, misprounce words, and in one scene, there is even a quiet conversation going on while the play continues up front. Nea Cornier’s maid claps, prompts, interjects and pulls comic and tragic faces as the play progresses.
The play itself loses a touch of its humour in Act One, although I found Act Two sharp, witty, and very entertaining. In acting terms Lady Bracknell almost always steals the acting honours, and such it is here. Ece Ozdemiroglu handles the famed handbag line as a shocked whisper but positively roars at other points. A gloriously funny and adept performance.
Cecily (Glykeria Dimou) channels Helena Bonham-Carter in her tatty chic style, a short dress and bodice in black enveloped in a flowing coat, with wild locks and coal-pitch lips. Far from demure, she’s a sexual force of nature who leaves “her Ernest” almost lost for words.
Gwendolen (Pinar Ogun) is both a tightly-wound spring of sizzling desire and a prototype of her mother. She may have youth on her side now but poor Mr Worthing may live to regret his choice of mate. As Algy says, “All women come to resemble their mothers”.
Director and designer Aylin Bozok has created a simple set of sofa, table, rugs in centre stage, but uses the whole playing area of the Tower effectively. Characters hover on the fringes, add asides as they leave, and stand stock still in the initial introductory freeze-frame.
There are several moments of interest in the staging of this play. The sexual tension is very heightened between both young couples (and even early on between Jack and Algy), and making Rev Chasuble a woman adds an unfamilar touch to her friendship with Miss Prism, while acknowledging Wilde’s status as a gay playwright.
As Chasuble, Irem Cavusoglu has authority and delicacy that removes the comic elements of the role, but her flirting with the “repellent” Prism (Serpil Delice) survives the change in focus.
I enjoyed this brave take on a theatrical institution. It wasn’t what I expected as the immigrant voice doesn’t feel that strong, but I appreciate the intention behind the production, which left me thinking about wider issues of identity – especially when I spent part of the journey home in conversation with an Irish settler in London about whether one’s origins are ultimately irrelevant.
The Importance of Being Earnest continues at the Tower Theatre in Stoke Newington until 18 January. Photo credits Pozi Poyraz Saroglu.
LouReviews received a complimentary ticket to see The Importance of Being Earnest.