Flying cakes, crashing plates, a cacophonous score and a healthy dose of Wilde witticisms – Gerald Barry’s operatic adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest has it all. Being an enormous fan of Wilde, this production brought the Wilde-ness of one of the most recognisably “Wildean” plays to levels I never thought possible.
From the beginning, the stage set-up promised a very unusual relationship among the players of the opera. The orchestra is arranged diagonally across half the stage in a triangular formation, and during the show the cast walk between and around them. There is no “backstage”. The cast walks off the stage and sits down the front row of the audience when they are not needed; costume changes are done behind a simple movable rack of wardrobe. There is none of the traditional separation between the watchers and those being watched – during the intermission, the orchestra casually walks off stage and into the audience,while the cast enters and leaves the first row just like everyone else, cup of water in hand.
That the small orchestra is as visible as the cast on stage is important. Unlike traditional pit orchestras, we notice the movements and facial expressions of these musicians (of the Britten Sinfonia) who are as part of the story on stage as the cast. Indeed, they chime in and chant the parts in unison where emphasis is needed, such as when Cecily and Gwendolen, the two women obsessed with the name “Ernest”, are shouting their response to Algy and Jack’s imminent christening.
Barry’s take on what is arguably Wilde’s best-known work picked up on its obsession with food and all the symbolism that goes with it. All the food on the set looked real, and the cast really eats them from time to time. From Cecily spitefully serving Gwendolen everything she does not like to eat to Algy devouring muffins in despair, food is bandied about, thrown at people, and generally abused. The props on the set are very temporary – there is a tall rack of plates there just to be smashed one by one in the most intense dialogues, and vases of green flowers just for Ernest Worthing to kick as he retrieves the handbag that would verify his identity.
I have watched many productions of The Importance of Being Earnest, some of which transport the play to the modern context, and even one with an all-male cast. I have also watched numerous operas, albeit mostly of the classical variety. This production, however, overturns all conventions of both the play and the opera. The music is oddly cacophonous and dissonant, with loud interjections from the brass instruments and interesting percussion such as a hammer blow on a table (cushioned with a pillow). At the end of the first act, an Auld Lang Syne motif underlies all the libretto in an almost flippant way, as if Wilde’s witticisms could be casually sung to such a household tune.
At the same time, the opera kept many of Wilde’s most beloved quotes, and the comic levels of the production served to highlight and magnify the irony in those words. The funniest moments in the opera are thus undoubtedly Wilde’s, but embellished by Barry. The whole opera seems to embody irony – it subverts what is traditionally a serious art form with numerous conventions and transforms it into an unusual, almost reckless take on a classic modern play. The incongruity of the stiffness of Lady Bracknell, played by the wonderfully self-important Alan Ewing, and his doing little jive moves on stage was hilarious. Claudia Boyle, new to the cast and making her Royal Opera debut as Cecily, deserves special mention for her rich tones and comically ditzy portrayal of Cecily. The cast not only had to sing, but also act to a level of exaggerated drama not commonly required of opera singers. In my opinion, they did an excellent job.The show was successful precisely because it knew full well that it was a dramatization of what is already a rather dramatic work, and thus delights in making itself as over-the-top as possible, while at the same time presenting the most ridiculous things with incongruous seriousness.
This was hands down the weirdest theatrical work I have ever seen, but also one of the most interesting. It has made me rethink the potential of well-worn plays to be innovative, as well as the versatility of traditional art forms. It was a raucous, irreverent evening, and I definitely got away with more than just a few laughs.
The Importance of Being Earnest is on till 3rd April at the Barbican. It will be live-streamed on 2nd April at 7.25pm on the Royal Opera House YouTube channel.