"The charming, much adored comedy tells the tale of two bachelors who escape their respective social circles by borrowing the name Ernest"Katya Church

Having delighted us with an intensely provocative production of A Doll’s House in Michaelmas Term, Downing College’s Howard Theatre hosts yet another Victorian classic, separated from its predecessor only by some fifteen years, by inviting its audience to consider, perhaps not for the first time, the "vital importance of being earnest."

Unlike Woods, who directed Ibsen's classic, Sacha Hopkins-Powell has no problem experimenting with Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece by cautiously placing it into a modern context. And successfully so. The charming, much adored comedy tells the tale of two bachelors who escape their respective social circles by borrowing the name Ernest, which conveniently seems to be a magnet for exactly the women the two are interested in marrying. And this production accommodates the stage as comfortably as it must have done in front of its original audience a hundred years ago, conquering yet another era by inducing unstoppable roaring laughter.

"This production accommodates the stage as comfortably as it must have done in front of its original audience a hundred years ago"

Arguably the boldest choice on Hopkins-Powell’s part was the decision to have her cast of widely familiar characters clad in incredibly surreal and hardly recognisable attire, too extravagant even for our own time. For all their mismatched brightness, Algernon and Jack’s neckties are the only two clothing elements boasting some sort of pattern, transporting us into an alternative version of today’s world, painted in plain, screaming colours that are more characteristic to a Tim Burton film than reality. Considering the witty repartee crammed into this play, in which characters comment on each other’s outfits, the choice of costume works especially well, giving these already amusing lines a new comedic layer.

The actors flaunting these blinding costumes on stage are, like their clothes, a diverse bunch. Ada Barume as Lady Bracknell delivered her punchlines – as well as the rest of her performance – seamlessly. James Cole’s Chasuble’s simultaneously serious and ironic sensibility, which indulges in its own ridiculousness, made us shriek with laughter whenever he stepped out on stage. The chemistry between at first grappling and later mutually adoring Gwendolyn (Victoria Zanotto) and Cecily (Sophie Ball) is undeniable both in moments of conflict and reconciliation. The two ladies are different enough for us to recognise the individual complexities of their characters, but just similar enough to laugh at the pointlessness of their arguments, which look more like quarreling with one’s own reflection than anything else. Indeed, the subtle, but cleverly placed and mirrored gestures, such as putting their hands on their chests in moments of shock, do Wilde’s comedic genius perfect justice.

"James Cole’s Chasuble’s simultaneously serious and ironic sensibility, which indulges in its own ridiculousness, made us shriek with laughter whenever he stepped out on stage"

Unfortunately, the portrayal of the minor characters often outshines the two leads. The interactions between Jeremy Manger’s Algernon and Nick Chevis’s Jack lack the electrifying energy expected of them. Although Manger’s performance is very natural and stays true to the play’s style, the witty and paradoxical aphorisms of Wilde’s iconic dandy are missing the innate lightness and confidence of flow they are meant to be doubled with, which not only comedic moments but Wilde’s legacy itself depend on.

Lighting breathes in unison with the pace of the play, accurately responding to every slight change of mood. A scene that stands out in particular is Lady Bracknell’s first private interaction with Jack, where the light suddenly grows dimmer in an almost apocalyptic manner, capturing Jack’s trembling fear of his potential future mother-in-law. The cast make excellent use of space, especially in the play’s final scene, when almost the whole cast disperses around the elevated stage in the most naturalistic way without crowding it or diverting our attention from the dialogue. This is mainly a merit of the neatly orchestrated set pieces, such as a coffee table on the left and the sofa on the centre-right of the stage in the second half of the play, which help to create well-defined pockets of character activity, where two, or even three groups of characters can interact simultaneously without distracting us from the main focal point of action.

In spite of some minor imperfections, this production of The Importance of Being Earnest is still an incredibly enjoyable treat, which seems to me, deserving of not only the loud applause of its audience, but of the mastermind behind the play’s creation himself

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