The Importance of Being Earnest (Tower Theatre)

The Importance of Being Earnest  [played by immigrants] (Tower Theatre, until January 18th)

⭐⭐⭐

A quintessentially English play is being given a fascinating and refreshingly cosmopolitan spin at the Tower Theatre with Pan Productions’ new take on the Oscar Wilde classic The Importance of Being Earnest – played by immigrants.

The play, first performed in 1895, is a comedy in which the leading characters create false identities in order to escape familial and social responsibilities. So it doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to work out why it is such a good idea for the enterprising company to bring people from different cultures and languages together to explore what it means to be from somewhere else and answer the question of “who am I?” rather than “where am I from?”

It is a decidedly ambitious project for a group of actors and creatives who spoke their first words in different languages but have made the UK their home. As a whole it is generally creative and intriguing, though there are several instances where you wonder exactly what is going on or what precisely is the idea the company is trying to achieve. The fact that one leaves considering and processing must be an encouraging sign.

As the audience enters they are greeted by each of the characters frozen on stage, occasionally twitching as though waiting to be brought back to life – it is as if they only exist as actors when performing for those watching. Of course, any human is much more than the role they play and we understand immediately that this is all about identity, the inherent desire to understand who we are as individuals, wherever we might be.

It is the “Maid” (Nea Cornér) who awakens them and indeed she is at the core of what the production is aiming to do. Cornér moves silently around the foyer in character before the show starts, observing, assessing and judging the audience. Perhaps there is a whiff of her wondering if the audience is “too English” to understand what will be taking place in the auditorium. Seeing ourselves as others see us is always more fun for the others!

In the play Cornér is an amalgam of the two butlers, Lane and Merriman, who Wilde paints as exposing the shortcomings of the ridiculous upper class; here, although given few lines and more evidently a housemaid, she ironically is the most confident when performing in English (she opens the play by faultlessly quoting Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy) and it is she who corrects the actors when they slip into their own language or mispronounce words. Oddly, and often distractingly, she also capers around in the background during the other scenes, which is increasingly mystifying.

The concept of “foreigners” performing stereotypical English roles is something Swiss-Turkish director Aylin Bozok enjoys playing with. The slight problem here is that each of the actors is clearly eminently capable of understanding Wilde’s words and characters and indeed they all do it rather well, which means that some of the rationale of the whole production is lost, as we don’t ever truly believe they are out of their comfort zone. We need to have more of a sense that the performers are trying to manage something alien instead of admiring their skill at the pretence.

That being said there are some exceptionally strong performances from the multicultural cast which supersede many of the reservations. Rarely has the character of Lady Bracknell been so rounded as Ece Özdemiroğlu skilfully suggests a snooty aristocrat who has risen through the classes, desperate to ensure her relatives achieve a social standing that she was not born to herself. Audiences can often quote Lady B’s lines before they’re even spoken, but Özdemiroğlu gives them a freshness as though nobody had ever uttered them before, from the shocked whisper of “a handbag?” to incredulous shrieks at other social misdemeanours.

The leading romantic quartet of the piece is a delight, their awkwardness in matters of the heart reflecting their supposed discomfort with the play as actors. Louis Pottier Arniaud and Duncan Rowe play Jack and Algie as though to the comedy of manners born and there is also a distinct sizzling sexuality about them. The production seems to suggest they mirror each other and there is an enjoyable perception of two naughty schoolboys embarking on a reign of mischief.

As the objects of their affections Pinar Öğün and Glykeria Dimou come closest to making us believe their uncomfortable vulnerability as a Turkish and Greek born duo respectively playing a prim Gwendolen (even the way she sits is carefully calculated) and a wildchild Cecily.

Serpil Delice (as a strait-laced Miss Prism) and Irem Çavuşoğlu (Rev. Chasuble) complete the hard-working cast and add to the idea of identities being created and adapted through private and public personas. There’s a hint of something more to their relationship which, although not given time in the text to be fully explored, adds an interesting spice to proceedings.

Bozok has also designed this production, a simple set on a large performing area consisting of a sofa, a bench and rugs, suggesting that this represents the expectations of a comedy about the elite by those unfamiliar with it. The black and white Goth-style costumes also imply a confinement of the actors’ creativity as their talents are undeniably more colourful.

Sound (Neil McKeown) and lighting (Morgan Richards) are also notably well-designed, sometimes enhancing a mood, occasionally standing in startling contrast to it. It is entirely appropriate that they are brought on to take their own bows at the end. An occasional burst of sound or glare of colour underlining moments of ridiculously outlandish drama serve to indicate just how ridiculous and eccentric typically English characteristics might appear to outsiders. There’s atmospheric incidental music too by Andrea Boccadoro.

Oscar Wilde (himself an “immigrant” of course) once said, “I love acting. It is so much more real than life.” This production of The Importance of Being Earnest rediscovers, reinvents and reconstructs the text and story in a way that occasionally bewilders and sometimes misses both its mark and the humour, but is never less than fascinating and intensely real.

But the crucial question about whether this commendable production of Wilde’s so-called “trivial comedy for serious people” uses its subtitle “Played by Immigrants” as an excuse or a creative device is less easy to determine.

David Guest

Images: Pozi Pyraz Saroglu

A version of this review originally appeared on The Spy in the Stalls http://www.thespyinthestalls.com/

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