When Oscar Wilde’s comedy ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ opened in London in 1895, the Marquess of Queensberry, outraged at Wilde’s relationship with his son, tried to enter the theatre to present the playwright with a bouquet of rotten vegetables.
The Marquess was barred on that occasion, and if, last week, any irate aristocrat armed with vegetables had hammered on the doors of the Volunteer Hall during Duns Players’ superlative production of the same play, the noise would have been drowned out by the appreciation of a large and attentive audience.
The play is jam-packed with satirical witticisms and it was a delight to hear Lady Bracknell’s ‘A Handbag?!’ (squawked in outrage and whispered in mystified shock by Kate Lester’s character depending upon the evening), Gwendolen’s “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train” and Algernon’s “The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either and modern literature a complete impossibility.”
While satirising Victorian prejudices and hypocritical values, the play delves into deceptions and double lives. Algernon’s invention of a constantly ailing friend ‘Bunbury’ (who has to be visited whenever Algernon wants to dodge unpleasant social obligations) harks to the clandestine existence that Wilde, a married man with two children, and other gay and bisexual men were forced to lead at the time.
Director John McEwen set Duns Player’s production somewhere in the mid-20th century. “I wanted the play to have a sense of style. I wanted these people to look fabulous, to come out on stage and feel at ease with their wonderfulness,” he explained.
And at ease with their wonderfulness all the actors seemed to be, particularly Adam Gaston’s superbly languid and effete Algernon. As a teenager and relative newcomer to Duns Players, Adam demonstrated inspired characterisation and impressive command of the role.
Ben Foreman as Jack was the perfect foil to Algernon’s giddy butterfly, displaying all the misery of a pleasure seeker, helplessly trapped by a predicament of chance. Discovered as a baby in a handbag at Victoria Station, he lacks the parentage and social standing to marry Gwendolen, at least in the eyes of her draconian mother, Lady Bracknell.
Playing the role of Lady B would be a daunting task for an amateur less qualified than Players stalwart Kate Lester. In this production, the caricature of the aristocratic bigot gave way at times to momentary flashes of vulnerability; although her ladyship did not let her guard down for long.
Marie Tucker’s Gwendolen was a confident, self-possessed young woman, the product of her upbringing with its endless rounds of parties, dinners, small-talk and half-hearted proposals from the brothers of friends.
One slight disappointment of this production was that there wasn’t more contrast between Gwendolen and Cecily (Amy Clark), Jack’s ward. Cecily appears more imaginative, impulsive and romantic than the controlled Gwendolen, but on stage much of the dialogue between them, including the hilarious bitching when they believe they are both engaged to the same man, felt a little static and one-dimensional.
Cecily’s self-righteous governess Miss Prism (played by Emma McDevitt) gets her moral come-uppance when she is unmasked as the careless nanny who mistakenly left Jack the baby in the handbag at Victoria Station. Luckily her ardent admirer, the Reverend Chasuble (played with the usual aplomb by Euan McIver), was prepared to overlook the error.
Nigel Warren, doubling as the manservant Lane and the butler Merriman, showed awareness of his lowly place.
The production owed much of its magic to a first-class set, courtesy of designer Karen Thomas. The spacious new stage, insulated for sound, and relatively new lighting rig gave the production a professionalism that speaks volumes for the talent of local people in bringing theatre of this standard to Duns.