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Andrzej Lukowski: When it comes to Earnest the stars are of little importance

Susan Penhaligon, Peter Sandys Clarke, Thomas Howes, Simon Shackleton, Kerry Ellis, Gwent Taylor and Louise Coulthard in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, photo: Jay Brooks Susan Penhaligon, Peter Sandys Clarke, Thomas Howes, Simon Shackleton, Kerry Ellis, Gwent Taylor and Louise Coulthard in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, photo: Jay Brooks
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Revivals of Oscar Wilde’s deathless comedy warhorse The Importance of Being Earnest are not exactly uncommon: there were different West End productions in 2014 and 2015, and a version starring Kerry Ellis is currently reaching the end of a lengthy national tour. If you really want to see it at any given time, you can probably just hop on a train.

What differentiates the version coming to the Vaudeville Theatre in July, though, is this: we know nothing about it.

Well, we know it’s part of Dominic Dromgoole’s year-long Oscar Wilde season, which has – thus far – proved to be a fairly orthodox set of revivals.

What’s not orthodox is that tickets to this Earnest have been on sale since December, and there’s yet to be any announcement of cast, director, or, indeed, anyone apart from Wilde.

It is, as far as I can remember, a pretty much unprecedented state of affairs, and considering how much I’ve spent obsessing about this sort of stuff over the years, common sense would suggest it should be dying on its arse at this point.

‘I’m sure to many people a radical remake of it would be akin to rebooting Fawlty Towers in space’

Don’t the public need to know whose directorial vision they will be witnessing on stage, or which actors will be interpreting the roles of Lady Bracknell and friends? Are they seriously going to part money when they’ve not been acquainted with the concept behind this particular production? Er… yes. Yes they are.

Getting accurate sales data on any West End show is nigh on impossible, and though the Earnest PR has assured me it is selling perfectly well, they would say that. Whatever the case, though, it is fairly apparent from looking at the ticketing plan that it is at the very least selling some seats.

There may not be any grand statement in putting the show on sale without any further information, but it certainly wasn’t considered any sort of hindrance.

Aside from certain Daily Mail reviewers, the whole discourse around theatre tends to be about how we can make it more progressive, how we can drag it into the 21st century, and how we can fix the flaws baked into the system.

I don’t think the public necessarily objects to that, but there’s also a strong argument they’re not hugely bothered. Or at least they’re not when it comes to something like The Importance of Being Earnest, a touchstone of British comedy so deeply embedded in the national psyche that I’m sure to many people a radical remake of it would be akin to rebooting Fawlty Towers in space.

It was popular 50 years ago, it will be popular in another 50 years, it’s sure as hell popular now and it’s unlikely there is anything that could change that.

It is always worth remembering that tens of thousands of the theatre tickets sold in this country every day are to productions that first opened decades ago. In many ways the new shows discussed and dissected in the pages of The Stage and beyond are just the tip of the iceberg.

‘It was popular 50 years ago, it will be popular in another 50 years’

Critics have been a little muted about Dromgoole’s trad Wilde season, but audiences haven’t been greatly deterred. And this currently baggage-free Earnest shows some plays can sell themselves.

There will presumably be a cast and director announced at some juncture, but part of me would love it if Dromgoole just brazened it out and attempted to see how far he could take Earnest’s indestructible brand.

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