The Importance of Being Earnest / Travesties
Oscar Wilde / Tom Stoppard
The Old Rep Theatre, Birmingham
Tucked between sex shops and Chinese takeaways, in the shadow of New Street Station, is an unassuming little theatre now known as the Old Rep. Built in 1913 by Sir Barry Jackson, it was the first purpose built repertory theatre in the UK. Home to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre until 1971 the company is returning after 40 years as part of its Change of Scenery programme while its Centenary Square venue is redeveloped. It is also returning to its roots performing both Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest and Tom Stoppard's Travesties in repertory.
The plays work fantastically together and audiences would be well advised to see both, which the Birmingham Rep is encouraging by offering a 25% discount. While the plays stand alone, director Phillip Watson and his creative team have put a huge amount of thought into the relationship between them. This is reflected in almost every element of the productions from the casting to the sets and even the fabrics of the costumes.
The Importance of Being Earnest is probably the best known and most regularly performed of Wilde's plays. It is a farcical comedy that tells the story of two young gentlemen, Algernon "Algie" Moncrieff (Matthew Douglas) and Earnest Worthing (Tom Davey), both of whom adopt fictitious personas in order to avoid their social obligations. The play is a witty satire that trivialises many of the common conventions of Victorian society.
In Stoppard's Travesties British consular official Henry Carr (Matthew Douglas) remembers his time in Zurich during the First World War and his interactions with James Joyce (Nick Caldecott), Lenin (Roger Ringrose) and leading Dada figure Tristan Tzara (Tom Davey). Carr's unreliable memories are filtered through the lens of Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest in which the real Carr did perform as Algie while in Zurich with a group that was managed by Joyce. A number of Travesties characters such as Gwen (Emily Bowker) and Cecily (Emerald O'Hanrahan) are taken directly from Wilde's play and many of the comic situations the characters find themselves in mirror those in Earnest.
Performing in repertory allows Watson to fully explore the relationship between the two plays. Most directly the casting means each actor plays the matching character in the other play. The two share the same set, which is cleverly designed by Colin Falconer to be both the sitting rooms of the houses in both plays as well as the library which features prominently in Travesties. However in Travesties the set begins to crumble away to reveal a Dada inspired collage backdrop reflecting the rise of the art movement in Zurich at that time.
The tantalising possibilities of the interactions that Joyce, Lenin and Tzara, each revolutionaries in their own fields, may have had is a seductive premise for a play. The unreliable way in which the story is remembered by Carr and the framing of the story within the context of Wilde's Earnest allows Stoppard to create a surreal and imaginative "travesty" of real historical events. At times Travesties does become bogged down by its own wordiness, but the Rep's production is beautifully informed by its close relationship with Wilde's original which helps audience draw parallels between the two plays through its clever use of visual and theatrical cues.
"The Importance of Being Earnest" and "Travesties" run in repertory at The Old Rep Theatre, Birmingham, until 22nd October.
Reviewer: Iain James Finlayson