The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde
BITE:05 Barbican Pit

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David Woods and Jon Haynes, the duo responsible for that unique brand of iconoclastic mayhem that is Ridiculusmus, are without a doubt two of the most innovative talents working in British theatre. More crucially they have always proven that physical theatre and text-based narratives do not co-exist in stark opposition to each other at the extreme poles of some binary system. In fact, in the absurdist world of Ridiculusmus they integrate very nicely indeed. Renowned for pushing at the boundaries, it would seem that in working with big names like Oscar Wilde and director Jude Kelly (OBE) they are crossing borders in more sense than one, moving from their commanding position as crowned princes of the lunatic fringe to the institutional mainstream. To imagine that they are somehow selling out, however, would be a mistake. Both are excellent actors who could work in the mainstream of British theatre if they chose. Moreover, this treatment of Earnest throws down a gauntlet to the self-designated guardians of the classical canon.

Deconstructing the classics has become something of a trend, but Woods and Haynes are challenging much more than the layers of tradition under which Wilde's play has almost vanished. With the two of them playing every character they are pushing the doubling-up-quick-change convention of the British fringe to its limits. After all, fringe treatments of the classics have acquired a set of conventions that have become as deadly as the mainstream itself.

Gone too are the staid histrionics of the Comedy of Manners and the more trite elements of farce. The text comes to life; it is as if one is seeing again for the first time in years the great hulk of a vessel after the barnacles have been stripped away. And while this might sound lofty indeed, I suspect that Woods and Haynes are just having fun. Anachronisms such as a remote control, a refrigerator and contemporary music would also seem too much like standard fringe clichés in the hands of anyone but these two.

Because their work is so abundant in energy it would be a mistake to assume it is devised and carried along by a manic impetus. While they could be dubbed the 'dynamic duo' their work is carefully considered and paced, as is evident from the quiet and confident sweep of Earnest. It might not be as full of surprises as Yes, Yes, Yes and Paranoid Household, nor as bitingly satirical as Say Nothing and The Third Policeman, but Ridiculusmus are always in the business of stretching their creativity and trying something new. With Earnest it seems likely they will attract an audience well beyond the base of loyal fans. Almost everyone has seen the play at least once on stage or screen and the enjoyment comes from watching them invent ways for two actors to play seven characters all onstage at the same time.

The set is delicious, functional and satirical. It's a hodgepodge of junk, every surface, draws, doors, tables, fridge all covered in 19th century floral-patterned fabrics so that the effect is one of High Victorian clutter gone berserk. Alternatively, the costumes are the real thing, stylish, and smart they would grace the West End stage. And I really must pay them a sincere compliment. Woods and Haynes look divine in frocks.

J.D. Atkinson reviewed this production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, and Kevin Catchpole saw it at the Theatre Royal, Winchester.

Reviewer: Jackie Fletcher

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