Simon Phillips’ last production as Artistic Director of the MTC – The Importance of Being Earnest starring Geoffrey Rush – is the hottest ticket in town, although the stars that shine brightest aren’t the ones you might expect.
The Importance of Being Earnest, By Oscar Wilde, MTC Sumner Theatre, Until Jan 14.
“In matters of grave importance, style, and not sincerity, is the vital thing,” says Gwendolen near the end of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. It’s one of the innumerable, perverse witticisms that power what, without being the greatest comedy in English, remains one of its greatest farces.
Wilde embraced that one-liner as a personal credo of course, and it was a cause of his tragic fall from grace. His stylish but insincere testimony in his sodomy trial seemed to forget that the truths he expresses in his ‘trivial comedy for serious people’ matter because they upend more predictable ones.
Yet if vitality and not happiness was Wilde’s goal, he succeeded onstage and off it, and the life-blood in this production – Simon Phillips’ last as Artistic Director of the MTC – is drawn in equal measure from the brilliant elegance of its verbal entanglements and the social miseries they hang upon.
It’s a simulacrum of Phillips’ original 1988 version, with Geoffrey Rush as Jack Worthing, Jane Menelaus as Gwendolen and Bob Hornery as Reverend Chasuble. The whirligig of time has served up a delectable comic revenge. Those same actors now play, respectively, Lady Bracknell, Miss Prism, and the play’s ancient butlers, while a generation of future stars take the reins.
Each act opens on an empty, tiled space against a backdrop of Beardsley illustrations. The costumes are as elaborate as the stage is plain, and if the chafe and rustle of Victorian fashion provides grist for physical comedy, the spare design accentuates the performances.
He gets top billing, but Rush as Lady Bracknell isn’t by any stretch the main attraction. A formidable comic actor he may be, but his female impersonation here is more frill-necked lizard than dragon-lady. I’d imagined Rush would climb higher into his upper register and reach for a crisper RP accent. He doesn’t, and while his portrayal does titillate, and takes its character’s comic anxieties seriously, it isn’t really a credible portrait of a Victorian society matron, and there’s a sense in which it coasts on Rush’s fame.
The real star is Christie Whelan, whose piping Gwendolen steals the show, from the subtle subversions of her flirting behind her mother’s back, to the ritualised cattiness of her scene with Cecily, played in wonderfully plummy style by Emily Barclay.
I enjoyed the conception of Toby Schmitz’s Worthing – stiffer, more uptight and restrained than his natural bent – better than the execution. He’s at his finest opposite Patrick Brammall’s Algy, a memorably foppish performance that embraces an engrossing fraternal turbulence, skilfully trapped in amber at the end of each act.
Hornery’s butlers are a hoot, while Menelaus’ attractively skittish Miss Prism isn’t given anything to work with by Tony Taylor’s appalling turn as the Reverend Chasuble. Still, there’s a mordant frisson in Prism’s final stand-off with Lady Bracknell, especially when Rush delivers the immortal line: “Is this Miss Prism a female of repellent aspect, remotely connected with education?” to his offstage wife.
It is a fitting farewell to Phillips, this well-turned crowd-pleaser, and an historic production perfumed by the flowering of bright young things, and the valedictory air of those whose bloom is gone.