When you take on a play as famous and beloved as Oscar Wilde’s wonderful comedy The Importance of Being Earnest, you are setting yourself up for a challenge. While the writing can almost carry a production by itself, the actors are competing against Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Judi Dench and Reese Witherspoon in many imaginations, and perhaps David Suchet-in-drag in others. Add to this the fact that the StAge is just not a good space for theatre (at least not when used conventionally), and this production team were giving themselves a very difficult task. Unfortunately, it wasn’t one they could meet.
This production did nothing to challenge my theory that the StAge when used in any unconventional way (in the round, promenade, etc.) will automatically look pretty good; and any use of the classic end-on setup is doomed to be ugly. The first half all took place on the stage itself, and suffered from the enormous gap between the stage and seating rack which really takes away any opportunity for connection and intimacy between actors and audience. The StAge is a big space to fill, and there was really no set to speak of, aside from the standard Barron furniture that’s been appearing in almost every Mermaids play for the last four years. There were some video projections onto white screens placed by the stage, but it was difficult to tell what they were and how they were actually related to the play. The second act worked marginally better, making use of the floor space and bringing the action closer to the audience, but the challenge of creating a rich, Victorian setting on a student theatre budget will, I think, require more creativity than this production demonstrated.
The two leads, Alex Wood as Jack and Rory Gill as Algernon, carried the show reasonably well, enjoying the ridiculousness of Wilde’s dialogue, but occasionally seemed not to quite trust the text to convey the comedy. Perhaps this was a directorial rather than acting decision, but there were moments of over the top, caricatured reactions which suggested a lack of trust in the text to be funny enough on its own, and could be rather distracting. Flora Smith was endearingly naïve yet confident as Cecily, while Ellie Hope was wonderfully regal and self-assured as Gwendolyn – although some of her lines did feel a little rushed, losing some of the words. Alec Csukai as Lady Bracknell, a role with huge comic potential, sadly failed to make the most of this. His voice seemed to have only two settings, monotone posh or shocked and screeching, which led to a few comic moments but for the most part left the character feeling flat and rather difficult to watch. The acting highlights of the show came from Timo Marchant and Isobel Sinclair as Dr Chasuble and Miss Prism. The pair had excellent chemistry, both playing up the eccentricities of their characters to hilarious effect, and there was a noticeable rise in laughter every time these two were onstage. Sinclair in particular got great comic mileage out of the shift from strict, disapproving spinster to giggling infatuation. Marchant, continuing to prove himself one of the most versatile actors in St Andrews, had a guileless charm and puppyish enthusiasm which was deeply endearing.
Despite these two excellent performances, this was a sadly disappointing production. Having seen director Greta Kelly’s more creative take on Antigone last semester, perhaps part of the issue was a directorial approach that didn’t mesh with a text that is very prescriptive in characterisation and setting. While there were some laughs, it was a shame that overall The Importance of Being Earnest felt rather lacklustre, not leaving much of an impression after the curtain went down.