I am rather fond of sci-fi spins on classic plays (Forbidden Planet, for one, is probably the best film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Tempest that exists), so the prospect of seeing Oscar Wilde’s premier farce in this style was pretty exciting. There is a lot to be said for both the social locale of Victorian London and 50’s science fiction being similarly preoccupied with different social spheres; in one case the country/city dynamic and the other humanity’s cultural values running up against those of alien cultures. Wilde’s comedy of manners, wherein two friends both have fictional personas allowing them freedom from their responsibilities, fits well into this sci-fi adaptation’s more literal interpretation of “different worlds” and the dialled up space aesthetic, at its best, has something of Douglas Adams’ pastiche of bureaucracy in Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy about it.
The tech utilised in the show is definitely to be commended for its ambition. As far as adapting genres to the stage goes, science fiction poses the most challenges as the space has to become a ship, a manor house and a garden at various points and the tech meets all these challenges for the most part. Aside from a couple of sound cues drowning out (incidental) dialogue, the projected backgrounds for each scene were very charming and the stock footage from B-Movies worked well to establish the tone. I should also say a sight gag involving the projections and a book was probably one of my favourite parts of the entire play as it was genuinely an amusing and slick effect.
However, when it comes to the comedy the results are mixed. Whilst the cast is laudably brimming with energy and the robot butlers execute some excellent physical comedy (think Woody Allen’s Sleeper), when it comes to Wilde’s dialogue this energy can be too much of a good thing. Much of the splendour of Wilde’s language, endlessly quotable as it is, and the comedy of the play comes from the dissonance between the polite etiquette these characters struggle to maintain and the inward animosity they suppress because of their social roles. Like much stage comedy, the fun for the audience is seeing the logical gulf between events on stage and the “second logic” of the scene, such as a character’s misrepresentation of an event or the inward emotions of a character that only we, the audience, are aware of. The problem is that at times this very polite dialogue is said with the full rage/flippancy/ardour of the inward emotion so there is no difference between what they say and what they think, thus scenes of stiff-upper lip farce become perhaps too broad. There were a couple of occasions where two characters were left alone for the first time and you, as an audience member, were excited to see the tension of their critical first impressions, the slow reveal of information and the ensuing conflict (all over a perfectly splendid cup of tea) yet it descended, all too quickly, into people making faces and not even looking at each other. At other times it becomes very difficult for the reactions of John Worthing to surprise or amuse when he’s already snapped three times in one scene whilst wandering the stage leaving himself, and subsequently the comedy, nowhere to go. This is all pointed out simply because by this stage in the play other excellent moments by the same actors convince you they could be very much funnier if they had been directed to do less.
Whilst this criticism may seem counter-intuitive when talking about a farce, it is purely because some actors, particularly the hilarious performance of Lady Bracknell (like something from the pages of Waugh), manage to pace their lines with a ridiculously dulcet consistency that, in contrast, allows the absurdities of their logic and their emotions to unfold within the minds of the audience. I really enjoyed the show and Bracknell, it simply seemed a shame some of the cast feel the need to go so big when working with material pitched as brilliantly as Wilde’s is.
The Importance of Being Earnest is so often a pleasure to see and this production showcases much of the fun of the piece as well as adding several very nice touches with a commendably unorthodox setting which, whilst at times less cohesive than the air-tight pacing, is something very welcome.
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