Feel like basking in a delightfully vintage Victorian play in a delightfully vintage Victorian theater, both enjoying by sheer coincidence the very same year of birth?
Then get yourself along to Belfast’s Grand Opera Theatre on or before this Saturday for a lively performance by the Original Theatre Company of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest,’ a biting satire on snobbery and elitism peppered with frivolous pomp and ceremony.
Thrilled as I was to enjoy box seating for the show’s premiere on Tuesday with the play’s wonderfully evocative 19th century drawing-room setting re-created below me, I was even more so to find but a few steps away, behind a glass facade, assorted souvenirs reflecting the theater’s impressive history over the last hundred years, including a finely printed program scrapbook dating from 1895, the very same year Wilde’s classic comedy had its first ever performance.
No more appropriate place then to view Wilde’s late 19th century play than in this utterly stylish late 19th century theater, its elegant and enchantingly nostalgic ambience, including an intricately painted ceiling high above, adding a sizeable slice of realism and authenticity to the on-stage action.
A master wordsmith, Wilde must have chuckled heartily into his silk embroidered handkerchief at the success of his subtle subterfuge – basking in the luxuries of English high-society while at the same time mocking the very pretentious trappings he himself was enjoying so lavishly. And receiving high praise into the bargain from influential London circles for his wicked sense of humor.
Sadly, the Dubliner-born writer’s own conceit helped lead to his downfall, for within months of completing ‘The Importance of Being Earnest,’ Wilde found himself in the midst of a national sex scandal that was sadly to see him incarcerated in Reading jail and then to lonely exile in France, there to die alone in a Parisian hotel room.
But let what happened after not detract from the enduring plaudits his work has received from theater-goers both back then and even today, all these many decades later, the packed audience at the Grand Opera House this week being an exemplary illustration.
Before mentioning individual on-stage performances, strong praise goes to designer Gabriella Slade. A play with a setting that’s a century old demands a high level of skill and Slade rises admirably to the occasion. When the curtain opened wide, so did the eyes of hundreds of viewers as before them appeared a veritable 19th century drawing room, complete with art nouveau décor and period furnishings. In an instant, through pure visual magic, the audience was transported back to a time of fastidiously groomed butlers and primly-cut cucumber sandwiches.
While Wilde’s script blossoms with razor-sharp quips and jibes, it takes a strong cast to achieve proper delivery with impeccable timing. In this regard, both Thomas Howes as the likeable scallywag, Algermon Moncreiff, and Peter Sandys-Clarke as his high-strung pal, Jack Worthing, and Gwen Taylor as Lady Bracknell, a haughty, conniving, money-minded governess, emerge triumphant. Kudos also go to a strong support cast, including Kerry Ellis as Gwendolen Fairfax and Louise Coulthard as Cecily Cardew, two flirtatious damsels courted by our two high-spirited fellows.
While wishing to avoid a spoiler suffice it to say ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ is a performance well directed by Alastair Whatley that involves a degree of ultimately harmless deceit, bemusing cases of false identity and amusing displays love and affection – an altogether entertaining farce that ultimately pokes fun at the shallow behavior of London society’s idle rich.