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‘In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing,’ declares Gwendolen Fairfax, upending the title of Oscar Wilde’s most successful play, and leaving everyone doubtful of what is, if anything, actually important. Full of folly and farce, and sparkling with the best of Wilde’s witticisms, the play seems to eschew any sense of moral obligation. Indeed, despite applauding the wordplay, critics of the 1890s often spurned what they saw as an irreverent betrayal of the educative purpose of theatre.
Unfortunately, Michael Fentiman’s version plays into the hands of those fusty critics of yore. Trapped in an oppressively bare set – ignoring the opulence of the age – his cast, by way of compensation, are forced into ever greater displays of hysterics. Sophie Thompson clamours more than condescends as Lady Bracknell, Pippa Nixon is in thrall to her crotch as a tiresomely carnal Gwendolen, and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, playing the endearing John Worthing, swaps delicately worded consternation for aggravatingly cartoonish high-jumps. Where the play offers sharp insight into still-relevant themes of marriage, art, class and gender, the audience at the Vaudeville is given a bawling frenzy. All sex and no subtlety could be an appropriate summation. And although this might be the wish of today’s West End audiences, it left me wondering what happened to high comedy.
In Wilde’s time, of course, the joke was on the audience. Fanning the flames of late-Victorian anxieties – the kind which kept the upper-classes watchful for any dissent that might hasten their already weakening grip on high-status – the play poked fun at every code by which they stood. England’s aristocracy, however, was not yet ready for such bold satire, and Wilde’s mockery was thus met with serious reprisals. In the months following the play’s premiere he was toppled from his pinnacle as a master humorist, disgraced as a homosexual and jailed under charges of indecency. In honour of the playwright, in only the 51st year since decriminalisation, you might think this current staging would strive to refute Gwendolen’s shallow quip and give value to sincerity over style.
With that in mind, I must give Fentiman some credit: he did not abandon all motif to slapstick. Fehinti Balogun just about pulled off a loveable Algy, and Fiona Button gave warmth to the stage as Cecily Cardew. There was also the well-balanced pairing of Stella Gonet and Jeremy Swift, playing Miss Prism and the Reverend, respectively. Gonet held the final scene in suspense brilliantly, while Swift’s man of the cloth could not have been naughtier; these performances thankfully kept the sympathy of the play intact. One excellent display of deftness came with the servants’ silhouettes which haunted the final act. While the schemes of high-society played out in the foreground, behind the glass panes of Worthing’s morning-room lurked the profiles of a pipe-smoking underclass patiently waiting for their masters’ downfall. This was a nice touch, pointing to the tumult of the ensuing 20th century, and finally giving the production that much-needed dose of dark fin de siècle subtext.
Fentiman’s production will probably be a roaring success. The London theatre was filled with wine-sipping pleasure seekers, and the Dukes in Lancaster – our first-rate theatre wherein the play was broadcast – was packed out. Due in large part to Wilde’s enduring legacy as premier wit, you would expect nothing less. While this should be celebrated and duly maintained, the best way to do so perennially falls to the next director. If Fentiman’s attempt achieves anything, it is to teach him or her to not merely play for laughs, and give style far less importance.
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