When it comes to Oscar Wilde, you really can’t get much better than his absurd comic masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest. And when it comes to absurd comic masterpieces, you can’t do much better than Dublin’s Gate Theatre, the Irish institution that has been staging lavish, intricate productions — mainly period pieces — fairly regularly at the Spoleto Festival since 1990.
This means that if you think you might like to settle into something comfortable after exposing yourself to the more avant garde shows at the festival this year — say, the shadow puppets of Ada/Ava or the breakdancing of Opposing Forces — the Gate’s The Importance of Being Earnest is just the ticket, literally and figuratively.
In fact, Spoleto Festival USA Director Nigel Redden said as much in a 2010 Post and Courier article about the relationship between the Gate and the festival: “Almost inevitably — many years, anyway — the Gate has been, in a sense, a reward for the audience for their stalwartness for going to other things. It’s a treat.”
In this production, there are no anachronistic musical choices, puppets, gender reversals, animated scenes, or any of the other more modern devices that regularly pop up in Spoleto’s theater choices.
And while the shows that make use of these devices are a huge part of why Spoleto is one of the more exciting arts festivals in the world, there’s always something refreshing about sitting down to something familiar. It’s even better if it’s funny.
The Importance of Being Earnest is, like much of Wilde’s work, a brilliant satire on the lives of the Victorian upper class. Revolving around two young couples and two cases of mistaken identity, the play also features a formidable matriarch, Lady Bracknell, and a ridiculous clergyman, Dr. Chasuble, who carries on a mutual flirtation with an equally ridiculous governess, Miss Prism.
As for how everything turns out? As Miss Prism herself says, “The good ended happily and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” Just substitute “Drama” for “Fiction” in this case, of course.
“It is the perfect well-made play,” says Lorna Quinn, who plays the ingenue Cecily Cardew, who ends up engaged to the clever rake Algernon. “The characters are a delight, the writing is superb, and the wit is wonderful.”
There’s a certain privilege, as well as responsibility, inherent in working on such a perfect piece of drama. Unlike a brand-new play, the characters of which may still be somewhat open to interpretation, a classic like The Importance of Being Earnest has 120 years of performances, adaptations, scholarly study, and fandom behind it. Most audience members will already have a good idea of who Cecily, Gwendolen, Jack, or Algernon are, even if they’ve never seen a live performance.
So how does that influence an actor’s approach? “My task is to remain true to what is written on the page,” Quinn says. To prepare for playing Cecily, Quinn worked closely with director and Wilde expert Patrick Mason, as well as read character studies and criticism related to the work. Above all, however, she closely studied the script itself. “There undoubtedly will be many versions of Cecily from the many actors who have played the role, but they will all have embodied that pure, sweet goodness that Cecily possesses, together with her fascination with wickedness and the dark side,” Quinn says. “Once the core of your character is rooted in truth, you won’t go too far away from what the writer has written on the page.
Michael Ford Fitzgerald, who plays Jack, agrees. “All the clues are in the text,” he says. “I think, regardless of whether it’s a part everyone knows or nobody knows, I always approach it in the same way … on a purely personal basis.”
The award-winning Mason, who also directed the Gate’s production of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever during the 2012 Spoleto Festival, is a renowned director throughout Ireland, as well as a professor at University College Dublin. He was unavailable for an interview, but Quinn was able to speak to his vision for this production. “From the very beginning, Patrick’s objective was to deliver a traditional presentation of this play, remaining truthful to each moment and striving to make the very most of each comedic moment with a beautiful lightness of touch,” she says.
Mason has also brought a level of detail to the set and costumes that should delight viewers. From the cucumber sandwiches to the muffins, the handbag to the sensational diaries, every physical element of the play has been considered — which is a great thing, as so much of the humor resides in those tiny details.
Of course, it’s this level of style and professionalism which has been drawing Spoleto audiences to Gate Theatre productions for the past 20 years. This year’s show promises to be yet another in a long line of excellent performances.