The framing device for the new adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest at Harold Pinter Theatre is so subtle that it managed to fool most of the critics into believing it offers a simple ‘theatre within theatre’ concept alone. However the idea of having a dress rehearsal of Oscar Wilde’s play by a group of local hams who call themselves The Bunbury Players is not just a delightful dramaturgical treatment but a meaningful dramaturgical engagement with age and nostalgia.
There is no doubt that age-blind productions such as this for some reason dissatisfy many reviewers and indeed a recent adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing with Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones was even considered a major flop. Yet a current trend of reinventing plays with older versions of well-known characters provide a fascinating insight into our presuppositions about old age and reveals lack of knowledge and appreciation about past theatre tradition to boot. Lucy Bailey transforms Wilde’s play, with the help of Simon Brett, to draw attention to passing time and time passing and at the same time brings to stage a sense of longing for the time gone by.
Based in Morton St Cuthbert the play starts with old thespians preparing to start their rehearsal in the impressive living room of Lavinia and George Spellman’s house designed in the style of the Arts and Crafts Movement (beautifully realised on stage by William Dudley). We soon learn that it is their third production of The Importance of Being Earnest, staged with resounding success throughout the last forty years. We are also soon witness to the company’s bickering and the unravelling of intricate relationships which also invade the world of Oscar Wilde’s play. After catching a glimpse of The Bunbury Players’ lives the rehearsal of the play continues with only small adjustments (trainers need to be quickly changed for a pair of suede slippers) and occasional comments from the director who also plays one of the main parts.
Acting is superb throughout the ensemble cast as they effortlessly inhabit the fictional Bunbury players and the characters from The Importance of Being Earnest. What they excel at is a subtle mirroring of their other character’s qualities: Sian Phillips who is both Lavinia, the star of the production, and Lady Bracknell, the impervious aunt of the two main characters in the play, bosses her husband George both at home and on stage when he is asked to play the butler and the manservant.
What is more, Wilde’s story sounds completely plausible with aged characters. Gwendoline is a clever and bent on marriage old maid and her quick wit suits an older woman who knows what she wants. Bailey does not see however even the need to amend the lines to make them ‘age-appropriate’ and thus when Cecily reveals her age to be 29 this may come across ridiculous. But it is not ridiculous at all. Not only does Bailey allude to the 19th century acting tradition allowing Sarah Bernhardt to play the role of Hamlet at 56, a nostalgic quality of theatre cherishing old actors’ craftsmanship which we seem to have lost, but also adds a layer of meta-theatricality thus asking the audience to suspend disbelief and imagine alternative possibilities.
Most of all Bailey’s production is a success because it is very funny, thanks to the veteran actors’ great comic timing and the framing concept revealing the production’s ‘behind the scenes’ complete with mysterious disappearances and appearances of cucumber sandwiches, unexpected costume emergencies, and bold disclosure of BWP (‘better when pissed’) philosophy of acting. I urge everyone to go and see this understated adaptation and relish the effortless craftsmanship of the older generation of great British actors.