Art, Culture

The Importance of Being Earnest @ The Royal Exchange review – a contemporary take on a classic comedy of errors

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Featured image and gallery: Johan Persson

The Royal Exchange brings a contemporary adaptation of the farcical comedy The Importance of Being Earnest, a classic comedy of errors which tells the tale of two Earnests who are not really earnest, and two women in love with little more than a name. 

Created by Oscar Wilde and first performed in 1895 as a satire of the aestheticism of Victorian society, director Josh Roche places the story in a fantastically modern context. The interplay between the classic text and the contemporary style of the characters is treated with playfulness; expect smartphones, Gen Z, and a dash of political commentary.

The timeless wit of Wilde’s text, elaborately embroidered with circles of paradox and hypocrisy, to the point of nonsensical confusion, remains just as funny and poignant today. 

Roche chooses to integrate not so subtle political commentary, from complaints about the state of public transport to comments on the NHS – inside jokes between the cast and audience members, if a bit at odds with Wilde’s enigmatic use of language.

Photography: Johan Persson

The set design by Eleanor Bull is flamboyant and fabulous. In the round, the white stage is populated by only a few simple items of furniture, giving the picture of fashionable minimalism. 

The stage is extravagantly accessorised, with an enormous bouquet of pink flowers that floats chandelier-like, and a sea of oversized pink pom poms that become topiary, reminding us of the opulence of the characters’ world.

Jack, or John Worthing, has invented a fictitious brother ‘Earnest’ to enable him to leave home to visit London, where he stays, under the name of Earnest, with his friend Algernon. It is here that he falls in love with Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen, who reciprocates – mostly enamoured with his name. 

Parth Thakerar plays the witty and charming, yet selfish and mischievous dandy, Algernon, transforming the character into a recognisable figure: the spoilt, ‘rah’. We first meet Algernon in his home, his lazy hips adding to his carefree demeanour as he saunters around, surrounded by empty takeaway boxes and half drunk bottles of champagne. 

Photography: Johan Persson

Algernon enjoys provoking Jack, and takes it even further by pretending to be his brother (the fictitious Earnest) arriving at the home of Cecily (played by Remi Sutton). Jack arrives, oblivious to Algernon’s game, declaring that his brother Earnest has just died, causing a ridiculous confusion.

Algernon falls madly in love with Cecily, whose attraction largely depends on his being called Earnest. Depicted as a typical Gen Z, her character comes complete with baggy jeans and crop top, iPhone with a pearl string, and even a vape. 

Photography: Johan Persson

The other pair of lovers, Jack and Gwendolyn, share an awkwardly passionate affair – their dynamic is amusing. Gwendolyn (Phoebe Pryce) produces a thick air of tension anywhere she goes, playing an enormously pompous woman beneath her polite, proper pretence, with a spark of excitement or madness in her eyes that threatens to explode at any moment. Meanwhile Jack (played by Robin Morrissey) has a gangly and clumsy physicality which leads to moments of slapstick. 

Photography: Johan Persson

With increasingly dramatic entrances and exits, the chaos becomes compositional, as images of confusion and misunderstanding are created and dissipated in rapid succession.

The arrival of Lady Bracknell (Abigail Cruttenden) leads to the chaotic revelation of Jack’s true identity, both dramatic and hilarious in equal measure. There’s a wonderful surprise in the last half of the performance, but all I will say is: muffins.

The Importance of Being Earnest runs until 20th July at The Royal Exchange Theatre.

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Tara Morony

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