The Importance of Being Earnest
In using The Importance of Being Earnest as a conduit for a second play on the importance of art, writer-director Adam Kinneen’s creation is a formal experiment.
The Newcastle University Theatre Society’s new production is performed and filmed in the majestic yet vacant Sunderland Empire, its 2,000 empty seats symbolically calling to attention the suffering of the arts industry throughout the Covid-19 crisis. The play is in support of Acting for Others, a national charity that gives those working in the industry much-needed financial and emotional support.
Kinneen’s added narrative layer, which intersperses scenes from Wilde’s life throughout the play, draws on the late author’s letters and memoirs, providing a first-hand glimpse into Wilde’s rise to stardom and subsequent downfall following revelations about his sexuality.
These scenes have merit. Most notably, Robbie Ross – the late genius’ lover – provides a mournful sounding board off which Leo MacNeill brings a commanding candour to his role as Wilde. His ruminations on the value of artistic immortality are sympathetically imparted, if at times tending overly towards philosophical exposition. MacNeill’s performance is rivalled only by Bugsy Bannon in the role of Gwendolen Fairfax. The close camerawork allows viewers to revel in the actors’ performances.
In other instances, however, the lens lingers too long or near-on exaggerated gesticulations where unembellished utterance would suffice. An unusual amount of screen time is consumed by Algernon, played by Jay Robinson, mumbling with his mouth full of cucumber sandwiches or muffins.
While each narrative has value in its own right, this production’s central flaw is the lack of connective tissue between The Importance of Being Earnest and Kinneen’s vignettes. Tonally, the two stories are mismatched. Wilde’s play is sprightly and joyous at its heart, shimmering with indelible wit, while Kinneen’s tale of Wilde’s reality is the opposite: sorrowful and lamentably drear.
As Wilde writes, the truth is rarely pure and never simple – and perhaps that accurately sums up this production. Mired by setbacks, the cast were able to come together in person for filming, strictly following Covid guidelines. Kinneen’s honouring of Wilde’s life may not be flawless, but its truth shines through in earnest moments: art is priceless, but it is not created without cost. And the cost of losing it is immeasurable.
The Importance of Being Earnest is available to stream via Stream.Theatre from 2nd July until 16th July 2021. For further information or to book visit here.