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The Importance of Being Earnest

by on 2 November 2022

Mistaken Identity

The Importance of Being Earnest

by Oscar Wilde

ETT, Leeds Playhouse and Rose Original at The Rose Theatre, Kingston until 12th November

Review by David Stephens

Oscar Wilde’s madcap farce, still a favourite of theatre-goers more than a century after its initial staging in 1895, can sometimes fall foul of appearing a little dated.  However English Touring Theatre’s latest incarnation, currently at Kingston as it concludes its tour, breathes new life into this classic comedy.  Before the play starts, one wonders where the ensuing action is about to take place: the set resembling a modern art gallery, complete with carefully placed pieces of African artwork.  Indeed, it is soon revealed that this is the Mayfair home of Algernon Moncrieff, a black Victorian gentleman.  Important to note at this stage that this is not colour-blind casting, but a window into the world of black people in Victorian society. 

Does this interpretation jar with the Victorian themes of high society?  Not in the slightest!  But why?  Because, as we learn from director Denzel Westley-Sanderson in his programme notes, successful people of colour often thrived in Victorian society.  Flicking through the programme, we are shown a number of images of non-white people, wearing fine Victorian clothing procured from their personal wealth.  As Westley-Sanderson explains, traditional black-history, so long neglected by the education system, often fails to tell the many success stories of the black community; many believing that, prior to the Windrush generation, black people simply didn’t exist in Great Britain other than in roles of domestic subservience.  Through this production, played entirely by a non-White cast, we are shown that, not only did black people commonly exist in mainstream society but many thrived, becoming important employers and contributing greatly to society in return.  It is this reclamation of the truth that has inspired Westley-Sanderson’s interpretation and his insight deserves great commendation.

Essentially a story of mistaken identity, the play revolves around the exploits of two friends, Algernon Moncrieff and John Worthing, who both assume the false identity of ‘Ernest’ in their bids to temporarily escape the demands of Victorian society and the accompanying monotony.  Under their assumed identities, both find love.  However, when all four find themselves at a country home at the same time, their cover stories begin to unravel with hilarious consequences and ensuing pandemonium.  

This staging, complete with fly-in sets and revealing gauze-walls, was brilliantly executed by the English Touring Theatre and it would be no surprise to see this, their latest offering, adding to their many awards won in recent years.   From the moment the play began, with all characters appearing on stage in a cleverly choreographed intro sequence, to the moment the proverbial curtain fell, displaying a life-sized group photograph, the performance was flawless and fast-paced and the cast’s energy and focus was a delight to behold.

Standing ovations are common in today’s theatres.  Often cynically referred to as ‘obligatory’, audiences have become so used to giving them that they can sometimes lose both worth and impact.  However, as the curtain fell on Tuesday evening, the resulting ovation was not only richly deserved but, fuelled by the energy that the hugely talented cast had so effectively transmitted to the appreciative audience throughout this exceptional performance, was highly instinctive and anything but obligatory.  A cursory glance around the auditorium revealed every single person on their feet, many cheering with delight, all smiling from ear to ear and applauding enthusiastically.  Applause that would certainly had continued for longer had the cast taken the extra curtain call that the audience were so eagerly encouraging.  If you see nothing else this year, go and see this….  I’m seriously considering a second visit. 

David Stephens, November 2022

Photography by Mark Senior

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