Split Second Productions have bitten off a fair old mouthful of Victoria sponge in putting on their touring The Importance of Being Earnest. In part this was intended as an exercise by directors Jaq Bessell and Bryan Hodgson to find out if it could be done with a cast of just two. Really, I think to an extent the jury's still out on its success. The problem with the disparity between forces – two actors versus eight roles (nine if you include the heard but unseen butler) – is that it can seem a gimmick to be judged primarily on its uniqueness, so that the smoothness or clunkiness of scene and role switches make up the central feature of the thing, while the more conventional merits of the production remain relatively unevaluated.
This final date of the tour filled The
Assembly Room at Oxford Town Hall. The room was and was not a helpful setting
for the production. On the one hand, with extraordinary appropriateness, it was
being built (1893-97) at precisely the time of the first performance (1895) of
the play. Its High Victorian interior – all lavishly stuccoed ceiling, oak
panelling and elaborate Headington stone fireplace with Juliet balcony above –
perfectly dovetailed with the marzipan-and-icing Wildean melodrama laid before
us. The dramatist's lampooning of notions of strict morality, and specifically
of the period's micro-concern with whether marriage is a business or a pleasure
within the macro-preoccupation with respectability; the character of Algernon
Moncrieff, a dandy, that's to say a
and also Wilde's language, bursting with epigrams based on paradox – all of
these fitted the setting like a glove of finest grey kid leather.
On the other hand, in practical terms the room's acoustics were shockingly unfriendly to intimate drama. The actors' words bounced off the hard surface of room with metallic echo, and even at close quarters dialogue was lost as it fled directly up to the distant ceiling. Tour Manager Jess Alade told me the cast were accustomed to a range of venues – halls, churches, barns and the like – but I thought it a pity that the audience should have to strain to pick up the cascading bons mots, puns and inversions of common sense that constitutes this richest of linguistic experiences. If there was less audience laughter than one would expect from a production of this material, I think the audibility problem was the villain.
The two young men at the heart of the action presented at the start a carefully-presented contrast: Jack Coleby's Moncrieff, with the gleeful face of a man in possession of a secret that reveals his friend to be leading a double life, and Alex Hooper's Worthing, harassed by Moncrieff's discovery of his use of an alter ego to escape the confines of his life of respectability. This opening scene done with, when Lady Bracknell appears she sports a hat like a comatose ostrich in purple and white. Divided as the role is between the two actors, she makes a surprisingly strong impact, with Jack Coleby's voice especially fluting for the 'a handbag?!' moment, managed with true Edith Evansesque outrage. He also produced a comically cracked voice for Miss Laetitia Prism, a nice foil for Alex Hooper's quavering Canon Chasuble.
Perhaps the most successful scene came after the interval, with Mesdemoiselles Gwendolen and Cecily, bewildered by identity misunderstandings, going at it tooth and claw under a veneer of decorous civility, even though to my eye and ear Hooper's slightly pallid latter was rather overshadowed by Coleby's infinite condescension as the latter: 'I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train', the scene summed up by Worthing in terms of: 'Half an hour after they have met, they will be calling each other sister. Women only do that when they have called each other a lot of other things first'.
The abiding impression at the end was the remarkable degree of planning by the directors and performing by Messrs Hooper and Coleby of the oh-so-intricate demands of the casting minimalism. The role-switching was a small miracle of sleight-of-hand that must have left the actors' heads swimming. It was all but inevitable that the themes and language of the play would have to play second fiddle to the logistics, and so it proved. But this was a worthy effort and made all the more fun by the energy of the curtain call, divided into an hors-d'oeuvre and a main course, the actors cavorting and pirouetting as each of the play's eight characters took his/her bow. Best curtain call since Mark Rylance's Richard III at Shakespeare's Globe!