New Lyceum production of The Importance of Being Earnest
Production follows on from Romeo and Juliet
The Importance of Being Earnest arrives hot on the heels of the Lyceum’s recent production of Romeo and Juliet, and is employing virtually the same cast and the same set. Director Mark Thomson is excited at the prospect of getting his teeth into Wilde’s classic farce and believes there’s a central harmony between the two plays, beyond the differences in period and genre.
‘Both are about lovers coming up against an invented social system,’ he says. Indeed, scratch the surface and further parallels emerge, reflected in the choice of period staging. Thomson’s fellow director, Tony Cownie, placed Romeo and Juliet in a Europe shattered in the wake of the Great War; this production of Earnest is set just prior to the conflict, sharpening the sense already extant in the play of a world under threat. Wilde’s play first appeared against the backdrop of a society whose moral guardians trumpeted concerns about the degeneracy of a rising self-made mercantile class empowered through cold hard sterling rather than pedigree. The writer held a mirror up to this paranoid pomposity and exposed the absurdity of parents determining who was a suitable love match for their offspring – just as Shakespeare did in Romeo and Juliet.
In both works the older generation cling hard to established mores whereas the younger characters question why they should be bound by these constraints. ‘I want people to come away from the play and think “Why do I care about this or that? Does it make me happy?”’ says Thomson.
As with all Wilde’s works, The Importance of Being Earnest is more than mere Victorian verbal gymnastics. Wilde himself called it ‘a trivial play for serious people’, a sentiment that Thomson has taken to heart. So has he made any major alterations to the original? ‘You mess about with it at your peril,’ he laughs, ‘because it’s usually cleverer than you. I intend to play the notes as they lie, albeit with great skill and vivacity.
‘But it will make you happy,’ Thomson declares confidently. ‘That’s a promise.’
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, Fri 22 Oct–Sat 20 Nov