Review: ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ @ Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton

I wasn’t sure what to expect from any performance of Oscar Wilde’s comedy, let alone from a small-scale intimate venue such as the Arena. So when people say size isn’t everything, it’s evidently the case with the Arena, the London Classic Theatre company and, of course, the ‘trivial comedy for serious people’.

The set consisted of a series of chairs, some (ill used!) books, and the notorious tea trays that play out the social politics of the play. This meant all focus was on the actors, and to positive effect – this company was wonderful. I have to say, the show was stolen by the dual role of Merriman and Lane, the respective country and city butlers. His reactions exuded humour, and removed any element of him as functional when he moved props etc.

It makes all the difference in understanding the subtle nuances of Wilde’s wordplay when it’s acted, and in this case even the inbetween segments added to this. For instance, Lady Bracknell and Algernon’s conversation was utterly lost on me, because of the hilariously suggestive eating of bread and butter by Gwendolyn and Earnest. Likewise, Miss Prism’s response to Lady Bracknell was well-performed to understand that, actually, the events lie on the ‘tragedy averted’ notion of comedy.

It also showed a couple of pitfalls in Wilde’s play. Algernon was wonderfully enacted, yet in Act Three he was relatively silent, which was a massive loss in terms of the actor who was a key component in showing the ridiculousness of upper class society. Earnest was also a great actor, and I’d never thought of almost pitying Earnest before, yet things like him losing his cool with Algernon and chasing him around for his cigarette case showed him as a put-upon character.

Lady Bracknell was simultaneously terrifying and so superficial it was laughable. It was almost evolutionary, seeing her alongside Gwendolyn and Cecily, demonstrating the inherent insensibility of the class system. Gwendolyn and Cecily were particularly apt in showing this, especially with Cecily’s dependence on Gwendolyn’s judgments, leading to her small and slight victories in their heated exchange.

This is a touring production so, if you can, I urge you to give it a try. If nothing else, it still speaks volumes to today’s society (comments on education’s worth received a particularly large response from the audience!), and provides a good laugh in doing so.

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Review: ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ by Oscar Wilde

I began ‘Dorian Gray’ with no expectations, apart from knowing there was an aging portrait involved. I always think this is the best way to start a novel, because you become a fresh canvas (pardon the pun) for the author, with no outside interference. While I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, I found Wilde’s replacement of action with sensory description hindered my understanding of Dorian’s true character.

The descriptions within the novel are incredibly thematic, and enhance what the novel is all about – the obsession with appearance and vanity versus moral decay. If anything, the imagery served to prove that one cannot be vain and virtuous simultaneously, and pretences can only serve you to a certain extent. However, the move from the innocent Dorian to the corrupt figure haunting the schoolroom was marred by this description, as while I completely understood that his decay was being depicted through the senses, i felt like I needed some sort of substantiation to his apparent immorality. This was why I struggled with the murder chapter – I saw how Dorian was provoked and understood his fear, but I still didn’t feel like Wilde had provided a why to this degradation. Clearly, Lord Henry was the major contributor within this, but the only symbol of his decay was his language – there was no specific example of his corruption, not even an exploration of his wife’s motive in her affair, although I suppose this was intended to follow on from his corrupting influences and them backfiring.

It was only in the subsequent chapters to Basil’s murder that I really felt like I understood Dorian’s decay: his vanity even in an attempt to protect Hetty from himself, his blackmailing Alan Campbell and Campbell’s subsequent suicide…I didn’t even feel cheated by not having Campbell’s suicide explained, as it wasn’t relevant to the plot, what was relevant was Dorian’s ability to manipulate those around him. It was only after the deed was done that I could see Dorian for who he truly was, and in this I feel Wilde is cleverly manipulating the plot by presenting the climax before it is explained. The fact that James Vane died without avenging his sister’s death – without, even, a headstone bearing his name – served perfectly to highlight the injustice in Dorian’s existence while those who seek the truth and love perish around him. It is this that makes me believe ‘Dorian Gray’ needs to be read twice to be fully appreciated, and that maybe the right expectations are needed in order to cultivate the perfect image.

Even if the image does make us question our inner portrait…