A coat of arms emblazoned with the Latin motto ‘Veritas Victrix Estis’ looms over the indoor scenes of Adrian Noble’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Truth is indeed victorious in Oscar Wilde’s most famous play about the loves, lives and lies of the English aristocracy, but only after three glorious acts following the japes and scrapes of Algernon Moncrieff and his friend Mr. Earnest Worthing.
We meet the two young men-about-town at Algernon’s London house where he divulges his secret: he is a Bunburyist. Dear Algy keeps a pretend ailing friend, Bunbury, in the country so he can escape his London social engagements to entertain ladies across the counties. Earnest admits the opposite, with a lot more shame than his outrageous cad of a friend: he is Earnest in town but respectable Mr John Worthing in the country, guardian to a pretty young ward Miss Cecily Cardew. Cecily dotes on her ‘Uncle Jack’ but has fallen in love with his wicked younger brother Earnest who she’s never met as he’s in fact the alter-ego Earnest uses to escape to town.
Both men fall hopelessly in love – Algernon with Cecily and Earnest with Aunt Augusta’s pretty daughter Gwendolen – and vow to leave their Bunburying ways behind them. But just as they commit to leading new, honest lives, both women reveal that they could only ever love a man named Earnest. All this silliness is presided over by Algernon’s formidable Aunt Augusta, a part relished by David Suchet who enters swooshing his long skirt about the stage, shooting withering glares in every direction and clearly loving every second.
The Importance of Being Earnest is a play that I know so well I could practically recite it but Wilde’s words are still as fresh and dazzling as they were in 1895, and the laughter is still as uproarious. It remains an utter joy to watch the plot unfold, Algernon and Earnest tangling themselves in fibs to win the hearts of the ladies and arranging emergency christenings to stop the truth coming out. This is thanks in no small part to the brilliant young cast. Imogen Doel is particularly outstanding as cloistered beauty Cecily and Philip Cumbus and Michael Benz have a great dynamic as Algernon and Earnest, bickering about society etiquette one minute and scoffing muffins the next. Peter McKintosh’s beautiful set and costume design makes the production easy on the eye, too.
‘A trivial comedy for serious people’, promises the play’s subtitle, but in fact this is a trivial comedy for one and all, and a wonderful way to laugh away an evening.