Wilde Boys

Bruiser and the MAC might be a match made in heaven on The Importance of Being Earnest, with an all-male cast looking at marriage through a modern lens

Joseph Law as Cecily, Richard Croxford as Miss Prism and Ross Anderson as Lady Bracknell

The Importance of Being Earnest is Oscar Wilde’s most famous play and is often called the 'wittiest play in the English language'. Eschewing the conventional social messages that anchored his previous theatrical works, it is Wilde at the height of his powers.

Earnest is a brilliant polished surface, ringing with a fierce, bright wit: a hundred and twenty years after its first performance it is still, magnificently, funny.

The Bruiser Theatre Company haven’t been going quite that long, but under Lisa May’s assured baton they have consistently delivered energetic and thoughtful theatre, and this co-production with the MAC looks like being as irreverent and accomplished as anything they’ve produced.

I sit down with Simon Magill, creative director at the MAC, for a half hour’s worth of Wildean thrust, parry and wit evidenced in my merciless opening question: 'So Simon, why are you and Bruiser doing The Importance of Being Earnest?'

'We talked all around the houses about potential plays', he shoots back, 'and we knew that it would be a significant financial investment for both us and the company, so we wanted something meaningful to come out of it. We talked about Wilde and obviously his best known piece is Earnest, a brilliant comedy of manners, attacking societal issues: the notion of marriage and the hypocrisies therein. And then we hit on the notion of an all-male version.'

Why then, in a world where there are so few parts for female actors, would they cast an all-male Importance of Being Earnest? This devastating blow merely glances off Magill, as he takes a sip of water.

'The thing that attracted me to the idea is that we have this glaring anomaly in Northern Ireland – we are the only part of the UK that doesn’t have equal marriage. And this is a play about marriage, and hypocrisy and people being barred because of their social status, so the idea just made sense to me. It’s not only an examination of the issue of marriage but also of Oscar Wilde himself. The hypocrisy of his life as a married man, and what was going on in his head was obviously being played out in his work. So we’re playing around with that as well.'

Wilde himself said of the play on his release from prison: 'It was extraordinary reading the play over. How I used to toy with that tiger life.' By the time of writing Earnest, Wilde’s tiger life was catching up with him: as the play opened on Valentine’s Day 1895, The Marquess of Queensberry, the father of Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas, attempted to present the writer with a bouquet of rotten vegetables as he took his bow. He was thwarted by an early tip off and his entrance barred from the theatre by a policeman on the door. It was, never-the-less, the start of a campaign that would see Wilde disgraced and broken by hard labour.

With all of this bubbling under the surface of the text, how have Bruiser made these allusions explicit? Is there any tinkering with the text?

'Not at all,' says Magill, 'but we are adding in songs and commentary: musical interludes for the scene changes. But the very heart of Oscar’s wit and style shines through. While we’re playing with the presentation of it we’re not messing with the play at all.'

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Richard Croxford as Miss Prism and Karl O'Neill as Chasuble

While playing with the presentation you could have cast an all-female Earnest, I argue.

'Yes, and we did think about that. I just think there’s a richer vein from the author that we are tapping into in terms of Wilde’s private life. I hope the play isn’t seen in isolation. The fundamental thing about Waking the Feminists is access in terms of work opportunities and we have had Glasgow Girls here, with a cast of eight women on the stage. I Told My Mum I Was Going on an RE Trip had a cast of four, all women. And then there’s The Train with Rough Magic, which I think has six or seven women in roles.'

Magill agrees that in the context of a season then, Earnest appears fairly anomalous.

'Yes, and I would stand over it,' he says. 'What we’re trying to do is play around with what’s happening in our wider society, not in a bang you over the head sort of way, in an entertaining way. This is very much the spirit of Wilde. We’re not taking it down any dark roads: the linguistic sword play that everybody knows from Wilde is still intact.'

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Joseph O'Malley makes his MAC debut as Jack Worthing

And the play is still funny. A hundred and twenty years on – it is still funny. At the time George Bernard Shaw criticized The Importance of being Earnest for its lack of depth, calling it Wilde’s 'first really heartless' play. And yet it endures, thrives even, where any number of touching, socially responsible melodramas have disappeared. What is Earnest's secret power? Magill has a ready answer.

'There’s energy to it and that’s what I’ve been trying to do with this season. For me in Belfast there is an underlying energy there, creative but also malevolent sometimes as well, and I want to reflect that, and I think that these plays do – either in linguistic terms or in terms of physicality. This is not a 'worthy' production. We want to breathe new life into it. For me it’s screamingly relevant and that was the attraction of it. It’s not some mad experimental piece – we don’t want to turn people off – If you like Wilde, you’re going to like this show.'

The Importance of Being Earnest will be at the MAC, Belfast from March 24 to April 15. For more information and ticket booking visit www.themaclive.com/event/the-importance-of-being-earnest or call 028 9023 5053.