The new production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest at the Watermill Theatre near Newbury is another success for this fascinating and innovative venue. As always, what is lacking in West End glitz and budget is more than compensated for by an imaginative approach to the play, very fine ensemble work from the actors, and a thoroughly intelligent and inventive use of the small stage and the wonderful atmosphere and intimacy of the place.
The play is given an especially clean, clear and rather vibrant reading. There are two essential aspects that struck me. This is one of the strongest presentations of the women in the story – the play basically gives them the central force and this approach works very well and draws memorable performances from all the women involved. Charlotte Beaumont is particularly delightful, sexy and charming as a strong, determined and knowing Cecily; and Claudia Jolly is suitably Amazonian and strong as Gwendolen. Their scene in act two when they meet, become best of friends, turn into best of enemies, and then become allies is absolutely superb and a great send-up of scenes such as the meeting of Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots in the Schiller play Mary Stuart. The clarity of their delivery of all those wonderful lines of wit and repartee is exemplary. Wendy Nottingham is an unusually characterful, poignant, yet determined Miss Prism, aching with lost chances and longing for the extremely attractive Dr Chasuble of Jim Crieghton. Connie Walker is an angry, bigoted and utterly compelling Lady Bracknell, a true parvenue, quite different from the usual approach to this role and less of a caricature than usual. Benedict Salter as Jack and Peter Bray as Algernon find just the right pitch for their roles and their relationships with these rather formidable women. Bray employs a very interesting mannered approach to his character and his delivery; and Salter has just the right kind of brow for the ladies to beat.
But Morgan Philpott nearly steals the show as the generic butler figure who looks after the characters as if he were a prop man with knobs on, appearing with the tea, a flower pot or anything else required at just the right time and fielding whatever objects are hurling through the air unexpectedly. His timing is perfect; and he provides us with a combination of superb comic posturing, excellent pantomime activity and perfectly sardonic detachment. He is master of the raised eyebrow.
Director Kate Budgen has got the measure of the play’s social messages masked as farce and sexual politics but she has also, with Movement Director Lucy Cullingford, designer Amy Jane Cook and Lighting Designer Sally Ferguson managed to create a Wildean world that is fully equal to both the comic and more serious elements of the story. The use of several cleverly conceived anachronisms in the productions props and design add to the somewhat Theatre of Alienation or Monty Python aspects of the experience, as well as glorying in the underlying anarchic cheekiness of the play.
The experience of seeing this play at such close quarters and with the lines so well and intelligently delivered is great fun. It has made me want to go back to the text and also to re-read The Picture of Dorian Gray, which I take to be the dark side of the same awareness in Wilde of social games playing and the authoritarian constraints of morality as decreed by the late Victorians. It is amazing how liberating some of the Wildean conundrums and paradoxes still are.
And, of course, the chance to enjoy the setting and the fine restaurant of the venue just help make this another fine, enjoyable and also thought-provoking pleasure. You come away convinced once again that this is a classic play. I recommend the experience.
- By Oscar Wilde
- Directed by Kate Budgen
- Produced by The Watermill Theatre
- Cast includes: Charlotte Beaumont, Peter Bray, Jim Creighton, Claudia Jolly, Wendy Nottingham, Morgan Philpott, Benedict Salter, Connie Walker
- The Watermill Theatre, Newbury
- Until 29 July 2019