Wilde never wrote anything other than himself. This was his strength – he simply had no need to differ from this style – but it does mean that performances of his plays require perhaps a different tactic than performers might be used to, and it is to this production’s credit that every element accords entirely with that singular character. What I mean to say is that everyone in this production may be very much doing their best ‘I’m acting now’ faces and voices, but this is really the highest compliment, and pretty much the point. There are distinguishing subtleties, sure – Chris Morgan in particular excels in making manifest the implicit sleaze of a sexless age – but the triumph of this production is its cohesion and consistency in giving voice to the music of Wilde’s own.
The relocation to the 1940s then works well, enhancing precisely that poise and contrivance that defines the Wildean world, whilst at once suggesting something (slightly) more contemporaneously relevant than an 1890s-set show might. To this end the costuming and design are due much praise – there is a sense of authenticity to it all that pays off well as the play dances and contorts about its own fabrications and falsehoods.
Jack Hutchison and Jess Palmarozza’s direction is too to be applauded, as every actor moves and speaks with an overwhelmingly mannered sense of artifice – that Morgan and co-star Michael Crowe deliver the bulk of their lines in the opening scene out at the audience, as if soliloquising, is a particularly nice touch. The text, aside from the temporal shift, is mostly preserved intact, but the choreography, design, and one new visual joke with Edward Richards that has the audience (repeatedly) roaring with laughter speak of a wit behind this production that the playwright himself would approve of.
Now despite everything I’ve said (because what’s more appropriate here than contradiction?), the actors, as individuals, do distinguish themselves, especially in the very impressive case of Abi Rees’ Lady Bracknell: a true Reesvelation (I regret nothing). She speaks as if continuously swallowing gall, and often ages on the spot. It’s quite a sight. Richard Collette-White as Dr Chasuble is likewise a delight, and a big crowd-pleaser, who seems to be channelling something of Stephen Fry’s Lord Melchett in his hand-wringing tweediness. Imogen West-Knights puts the ‘young’ in ‘my God, she really does seem young’, and the aforementioned Edward Richards does a good job as the butler Lane, sounding something like Will Self, and funny in that sarcastic, disinterested way that Geoffrey from ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’ was presumably supposed to be.
In all this is a deeply accomplished, professional production, and one that is certainly worth seeing for anyone with the slightest affection towards those wild, wild words. For anyone who finds, as many do, the whole self-regarding Wildean thing unbearable, this production is Hell: and that is the most enthusiastic compliment possible.