Tara Arts and Two Gents Productions’ playful re-imagining of Oscar Wilde’s classic is not the Earnest you are used to, but one that you will remember for a while to come.
How far can you stretch a play? This appears to be the question posed by Tara Arts’ and Two Gents Productions’ The Importance of Being Earnest – a two-hand re-imagining of Oscar Wilde’s classic. It has been 124 years since this charming, ridiculous and infamously witty play first entered the British imagination and, by now, the sense of tradition and nostalgia that surrounds it mirror the themes of the play itself. With all this in mind, it would be either brave or foolish to not only slash the cast to just two actors, but introduce an element of African heritage and cheekily shatter the fourth wall. It absolutely shouldn’t work, but it largely does.
Every role, from the worldly Jack Worthing to the pristine Gwendoline Fairfax is filtered through Ayesha Casely-Hayford and Kudzanayi Chiwawa’s unique humour and British-African sensibilities. We see the actors play themselves tussling over the best parts and even sharing the inimitable Lady Bracknell’s role between them. This shared imagining of Lady Bracknell is undoubtedly the most enjoyable element of the production. The uptight aristocrat is re-invented as a watchful Zimbabwean Aunty, whose obsession with status and propriety is more true to life than if Maggie Smith’s Lady Downtown were on stage.
It is Casely-Hayford and Chiwawa’s knowing and carefree attitude that make this The Importance of Being Earnest enjoyable. The sparse staging, hand-painted poster backdrop, Sports Direct bag full of props and Janelle Monae music blasting from Chiwawa’s iPhone all contribute to a disarming workshop feeling across the evening. However, some blocking decisions – such as the laborious setting up and striking of the staging and props by the actors themselves – stunt the momentum of an otherwise well-paced production. There are also some dabbles with audience participation which, whilst sometimes a little forced, were mostly amusing and in the spirit of Wilde’s trademark humour.
All that is required to enjoy this production is an open mind, a good memory (for the ever-changing voices) and a sense of humour. This is not the Earnest you are used to, but it is one that you will remember for a while to come.