[Review:] THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, Tower Theatre, London.
Aesthetically, this performance is incredibly promising. It has an astute and definitive palette of blacks, whites and dark greens, with objects rarely falling out of this scheme. This is most visually pleasing. As an extension of this, the organisation of the space, for the most part, is also satisfactory, proving symmetrical, clean and neither under- or overwhelming. Costume adds vigour and also refinement to this performance, complementing character profiles and characterisations as well as quirk and humour (the sonic quality of Gwendolen’s (Pinar Ogun) leather boots, for example) and, again, the overall aesthetic. My only issue here, however, is the lack of coherency across the costumes, comparing satin dress-shirts, rhinestoned cardigans and skirts to coquettish and gothic lace dresses, platform boots and leather jackets, for example. There lacks in these costumes a sense of time and collective profile, in this way.
Visuals are intrinsic to this performance, yet what they communicate is often dubious. The first most blatant visual element that I will write about is the figure of the maid (Nea Cornér). Director Aylin Bozok makes a bold decision in having Cornér present constantly throughout the performance, tucked away in the corner, eavesdropping on if not watching the action that occurs. We are made to think of Cornér not as a character or person but as a mystical bystander, a powerful, nay magical, and influential figure, rearranging the space and moving the other characters across the stage without their knowing, all through a kind of telekinesis. This is a very deliberate and particular decision, and it is one that complicates our reading of the dramatic text. My question is, quite simply: why? What is she adding to the performance if not visual appeal? How is this sorcery moving the performance along in a way in which its absence would squander it?
In fact, the deliberateness of having Cornér always on stage means that our readings of scenes in which she is not present becomes complicated. As I wrote, she is primarily presented as a kind of otherworldly and inhuman entity, controlling the fates of all of the characters, and yet her significance is overlooked in certain scenes, primarily those involving Cecily (Glykeria Dimou). Why is such an integral figure absented here? Is she not in control of the entire plot, only aspects of it? Only certain characters? It seems as though the aim here was just to add some mysticism and intrigue rather than anything thoughtful, meaningful and texturised.
When characters are magnetised or teleported, for lack of a better term, onto the stage, a pattern emerges: actors intend to appear weightless, floaty or puppet-like, assuming their positions in the space, and when the teleportation is finished, the characters all scream, in shock of their new surroundings or of the sudden realisation of a new presence in the space. Yet, this pattern seems superfluous and simply for humour. The characters immediately move on from their shock, and the scene resumes as though nothing has happened. I am not looking for an explanation here — repetition is enough to add tone and texture, and so I am not concerned necessarily with why this could be a reasonable style for this performance — my concern remains, instead, directed towards why this particular manner of expression was decided upon for this performance. The mysticism here is incomplete, faltering and inconsistent. What is more, it is fruitless, resulting in nothing and projected from nowhere. And all this coming from the figure of the maid is a decision connoting a very specific, unexpectable subversion of power, and this connotation is far too particularised to be ignored by the plot in the way it is.
Such patterns and routines compose another element integral to this performance. As with the routine outlined above, there are two others I would like to draw attention to surrounding the character of Gwendolen that add absolutely nothing but quick-fire humour: one involves overdramatic, sexual interactions between her and John (Louis Pottier), most notably in Lady Bracknell’s (Ece Ozdemiroglu) presence; the other concerns the rigid pattern of behaviour she demonstrates when sitting down on the sofa, taking her time to decide, rather pointlessly and deliberately, on which part of the sofa to sit before sticking one leg out and adjusting the position of her glasses upon her face.
Routines such as these are particularly distractive from the dramatic text because they are nothing but tonal, concerned with the overall mood and feel of scenes as opposed to the development of plot and character. The sheer volume of such routines, these two being prime examples, means that this subtraction from plot, in particular, is severe. It is incredibly difficult throughout the entire performance to really focus on the actual action of the play, and events start to lose their integrity. Rather than being used to complement the plot, to add texture and tone to an articulate and clear dramatic text, these moments of humour, much like with the mysticism mentioned above, are used as the very material itself. The plot becomes supplementary, nay superfluous, almost. This first example of Gwendolen’s routines is a prime example of this, as rather important information is subtracted from due to her and John’s loud and outlandish interactions.
However, these routines also start to lose their integrity as they are overplayed, this being particularly true to this latter example of Gwendolen’s routines which starts out as endearing and timely but which becomes more of a rule that Ogun must follow, one which fades into the background of busy scenes and which becomes time-consuming laborious and tiresome. With the comedic quality of these declining, there is little else on stage to propel the performance along. This is this performance’s weakest point by far.
In fact, the performance starts to become incredibly predictable, and even this persistent comedy seems to give up on itself until the performance is nothing but humdrum motions. What is more, momentum is consistently and deliberately thwarted throughout this performance, with utterly unnecessary moments such as one metatheatrical scenario, again repeated far too often, where we find the maid obstructing the movements of the other characters, sprawling out on the sofa on which they are going to sit, for example. Here, the scene comes to a halt, and the actors look at her expectantly until she moves, and the last line is repeated and the scene continues as before. These moments are needless and ineffably subtractive, as are others where characters mispronounce something and are corrected in difficulty by the rest of the cast or start delivering their lines in what is presumably their own language, only to be stopped by another to restart in English.
This brings me on to the discourse [supposedly] surrounding the play. The cast consisting ‘purposefully’ of immigrants, this production professes to comment on the difficulty immigrants face in their integration into British culture, and I imagine that Pan Productions believe these moments of interruption, distraction, fallibility and correction to be successfully evocative of this discourse…they are not. There is absolutely nothing which links this performance to the social realities of immigration, beyond a few intentional mispronunciations and the use of other languages. I can definitely see how these elements have been inspired –– for example, delivering lines in one’s own language being representative of a faltering code-switching, an unintentional and unrealised slip of the mother tongue, so to speak — but the intended message behind or inspiration behind such elements does not equate what the messages actually are or what is actually being communicated.
Until these moments arise, in fact, it is incredibly easy to forget that this performance has anything to do with immigration whatsoever. Even if these moments were more articulate, what exactly are the focal aspects here of immigration and integration into British society? It remains unclear. As explained above, this text is adapted primarily for comedy, not for discursiveness. Perhaps the additions made should not be these comical [and vapid] routines and interactions but additions that complement the motives behind this performance. Otherwise, we are left with a very peculiar image of immigrants, that they are mystical entities with telekinetic powers or overly sexual persons, that their main issues in settling into British culture revolve around dated British ideals of suitability for marriage.
This performance lacks an incredible amount of focus and drive. Its intentions do not come through in any way shape or form, and it remains simply a wacky and peculiar staging of a well-known play, comical and endearing turned repetitive and lacklustre. It would be better to use the playtext as a skeletal frame for exploration into immigrant realities. This does not necessarily have to be serious and weighty; it could also be rather satirical. There are so many features of this play which would make for marvellous exposure of immigrant life in Britain or for critiques on British culture’s inflexibility towards immigrants: John’s countryman/city-dweller could be used to critique the binarism of native/foreigner; Lady Bracknell’s obsession with marriage could expose how immigrants relate to one another, socially as well as romantically, and to suchlike British institutions; John’s being born in a handbag could lead to discourses on the importance attributed in social ideology to birthplace and resulting xenophobia.
Again, I am not asking for a profound exploration into this but for clarity. There is a massive friction between aim and execution. It seems as though this narrative of immigration is an artistic overthought, more significant and seemly in the minds of the performance’s creators than anything materialised on stage. There is a lot of fictionality in this performance which dampens its readability as a poignant piece of theatre. Characters are far too caricaturistic, the text is ill-tailored and simply whimsical, and the focus on the dated life of the upper-class exacerbates the lack of contemporary study.
Moving on to characterisation, actors are, on the whole, engaging and cogent performers. Engagingness is more a problem concerning the text and its content, rather than performer capability. However, when routines are not relied on, and especially when the stage consists only of a few actors, energy is enabled to fall considerably. Performers are definitely in need of more vitality in places. The use of space is alright, but I would pay attention to how often Cornér faces away from the audience. If her presence really is so negligible and pointless that she should have her back to us throughout the entirety of some scenes, it would be better to omit her completely from them. Another note I have for Cornér is that I had absolutely no idea she played two characters, Lane and Merriman. Again, a lack of articulacy and conceptualisation; Cornér is simply representative throughout of a ghostly maid and nothing else.
Some final notes on tech. Music (composed by Andrea Boccadoro), though highly simple –– yet, this is not necessarily a bad thing –– retains clarity and theme. Despite its lack of significance and its irrelevance to the text, I must admit that I do really enjoy the motif conceived for this production, but this is obviously subjective. Lighting (designed by Morgan Richards) could be far more focused and articulate but, on the whole, is satisfactory. I will say that it would be far more visually pleasing for this particular performance, however, to have lighting rise from a blackout or deeply coloured wash than from a lower intensity to a higher one in natural lighting states. The use of sound (designed by Neil Mckeown) is utterly incoherent. Why all the characters are represented by a particular sound, such as a bell strike for Lady Bracknell and a cawing crow for Cecily, I have not the slightest idea. An ill-conceived and fruitless addition, not to mention only used twice or thrice in the performance. However, I imagine this is more of a directorial issue. Sound also failed to coincide with action on stage successfully very frequently.