The Importance of Being Earnest is one of those plays, like The Crucible, or Romeo and Juliet, the mere mention of which makes something inside of me curl up and enter its own private hell. Nausea. La nausee.
It's no fault of the plays - each of them (and the same goes for others in the category like Look Back In Anger, or Antigone, add your own) is a work of genius, and has accrued in its time more admirers than the combined output of all living playwrights (excepting Pinter and Stoppard, I suppose). No, it's the over-familiarity breeding contempt, and the dead weight of expectation that hovers over productions of these plays like particularly grizzled vultures. Happy to report, then, that Erica W's go at The Importance for Oxford Playhouse is fresh and, thank heavens, funny. I liked Maggie Steed's Lady B very much, as frightening and as shallow an aunt as any in Wodehouse, but I felt that the lovers were back where they belong, as the central pillars of the thing. And Algy's aphoristic frenzies in the first act were almost suffocating. This is a man, we feel, with more wit than is good for him.
Sally Phillips's turn as Gwendolyn made gales of laughter reel around the matinee crowd, as she brought out the gutsy, implacable side of G that marks her out as sharing Lady B's genes. Her stellar career in telly and film comedy (Smack The Pony, Green Wing, Bridget Jones) has made Sally's stage appearances few and far, but I'd love to see her play Rosalind one day soon. Or Lady Macbeth, come to think of it. Must also mention Julian Bleach, who plays the servants Lane and Merriman with vampiric grace.
A couple of days before that, I saw a play at the Sound Theatre in Soho that should be yawningly familiar to me but, I have to confess, I knew next to nothing about it. Never before seen or read Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus's eerie, cruel, beautiful play about the classical equivalent of Lucifer, the god who brings the light of knowledge to humans, and is punished by God for his presumption.
The production was memorable for the terrific writing - the translation is by turns muscular, viciously wry and awesomely statuesque - and the performance of David Oyelowo as Prometheus, who spent the duration chained, in cruciform stance, railing at the outlandish treatment meted out by Zeus for his transgression. DO was compelling. Stretching every sinew to test the bonds that held him, screaming injustice, whispering of his tenderness for humankind, he was both Satanic and Christlike.
I was unimpressed, though, with the chorus - there were too many of them that could do the writing no justice, their weak voices and slack-limbed movement perhaps excusable in that they were inexperienced - they seemed to be of student age - but what I couldn't excuse was their whispering to each other, out of character, in the pre-set, squatting in the aisle near me. What possessed them? I'd like to think James Kerr, translator and director, would not have approved. I could never thereafter believe them as the daughters of Tethys and Oceanus.
Better than both of these, however - funnier than the Wilde, better performed than the Aeschylus - was Harvest, Richard Bean's new play previewing at the Royal Court.
RB is well known in theatre for his passionate advocacy of big new plays in big spaces with big casts and big ideas, as a leading member of the Monsterists. Well, for Harvest, three out of four ain't bad, and the one it falls down on is space, though the Court does its best to accommodate a farm kitchen, stairs to a visible upstairs bedroom, as well as windows out to a visible yard, and farm buildings beyond. The story of an East Yorks farming family from 1914 to the present is told in seven episodes, each building on the last to form a convincing, involving saga of love, work, war and more work. I can't recommend it highly enough. I'm struggling to do it justice here, so will try to sum up. Harvest is a play that cares for its protagonists, a humane work, telling stories of strife and togetherness, death and longevity and family, and the absurd intrusions from outside that can bring unlooked-for joy or disaster.
RB was at the show I saw, and I did the embarrassing thing of going up and saying how much I liked the play. Embarrassing, but I don't think he minded too much. He came over and chatted with my companions Samantha (who'd once interviewed him), Glyn and R. Five playwrights together normally qualifies as a rejection, but maybe not when one of them's RB. Reviews out at the weekend - they'd better get it, the sods.