“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” Those fateful words, uttered by Oscar Wilde’s Algernon Moncrieff, came to characterise the various – generally not-all-too favourable – reviews published of the first instalment of Oscar Wilde season at the Vaudeville, An Ideal Husband. Among these reviews was a scathing assessment published by WHS’ very own Millie McMillan, declaring the performance ‘certainly not the peak of this year’s London theatre’, and commenting on the general disapproval the performance with which the performance met when confronted with the English A Level cohort. Despite this, the second instalment of the season – namely The Importance of Being Earnest – was, in my personal opinion, a resounding success, both at the Vaudeville and during the amateur production at Eton College which I had the great pleasure of attending.
First, the Vaudeville. As in An Ideal Husband, the scenery for the show was lush, beautiful and eye–catching, without detracting from the performance whatsoever. Similarly, the costuming was splendid, and left me raving about it for several days afterwards as I found myself wondering where I could obtain a velvet smoking–jacket (before realising I could probably just borrow one from a friend). And, like all things Oscar Wilde, and like An Ideal Husband before it, the entire cast of Earnest was simply stunning. The Vaudeville seems to have a talent for procuring people with an especially magnetic charm to them, and this was no exception, with special mentions going to Jack and Algernon, whose fraternal banter and witty repartee were really the backbone of the performance itself. It was the fast-paced and stichomythic dialogue between the two central characters, as well as between characters such as Aunt Augusta and Gwendolen, which truly lent the show its appeal, and without them, it is likely that the energy both onstage and in the audience would have been lacking.
The costuming for Earnest at Eton was similarly fantastic, although I imagine many of the staple pieces – tailcoats, starched shirts and bow ties among them – were likely simply drawn from the everyday wardrobes of the actors themselves! One moment I will draw out is one I would describe as ‘a GCSE Drama student’s fever dream’: a reluctant Jack – dressed in black funeral garb – comes face-to-face with Algernon – dressed in a white summer suit – and the two are forced to reconcile and shake hands. This moment was perfectly directed and staged, and for me, represented one of the many joys of amateur productions, namely the sheer amount of obsessive focus that goes into them. All of the young men in the production had clearly worked incredible hard, and it shone through, both metaphorically in the passion behind every line, and literally on their sweaty foreheads as they all worked hard to keep the energy up.
The real performance kudos, however, must go to those playing various female characters. As any Drama student of any level can tell you, capturing physicality is very difficult, and that difficulty is exponentially exacerbated by the task of capturing the physicality of a different gender. Despite this, the young men in role as Aunt Augusta, Gwendolen, Cecily and Miss Prism did a masterful job, successfully characterising them just enough to be comic but without venturing into the realm of the ridiculous. Aunt Augusta was especially brilliant, with the actor capturing exactly her accent, tone of voice, and stage presence, and almost every line was met with raucous laughter from the audience.
The professional performance at the Vaudeville took a few liberties which the one at Eton did not. For one thing, at various moments at the Vaudeville the characters seemed to divulge into the beginnings of more than a few orgies, with garden boys and kitchen maids canoodling among the roses, and Algernon having a less–than professional relationship with his butler, Lane. In my mind, this simply fuelled the ideas of passion and repression which shimmer behind the play’s script, but to a few other reviewers, this was a marked example of the lewdness associated with this season’s performances of Wilde’s two plays. The performance at Eton was, naturally, a much more PG-13 affair, with the height of the sexual tension being a very chaste forehead kiss delivered from Algernon to Cecily, but this did not detract from the performance in any way.
Both shows were very charming, and I would be extremely hard–pressed to rank one over the other, simply because they were so different. Oscar Wilde at the Vaudeville seems to be a deeply polarising thing, and both Earnest and An Ideal Husband were met with reviews both complimentary and critical. Whilst the amateur performance at Eton is now finished, I would advise that you go and see the professional one at the Vaudeville, and make up your own mind about its merits. One thing is for certain though. In my opinion, when it comes to any performance of Oscar Wilde, the truth is both pure, and simple, and it is this: that they are all worth watching.