As we sluggishly unlock, it is easy to speak of returning to the ‘magic’ of live theatre and other such clichés. But it’s not an exaggeration to say that I was blown away by the quality of the Trinity Player’s recent production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. To briefly summarise, the play is one of miscommunication and misunderstanding, a farce in which two women find that they can only fall in love with people by the name of Ernest, having already been proposed to by men who are not in earnest when they profess that Ernest is there name. Too many earnests, but that’s kind of the point. Through the discovery of family secrets, journeys from the city to the country and a fair bit of ‘Bunburying,’ the situation is comically resolved.
I was lucky enough to have tickets to the 5th of June Saturday matinée performance. This was not due to my own foresight, but rather due to my friend’s obsession with procrastinating by seeking opportunities for future procrastination. Perhaps my opinions on the play were already flavoured by the weather of the day, which was gloriously sunny, though with a slight breeze which consistently managed to blow down the string quartet’s sheet music. Anyway, we arrived at the austere gates of Trinity college – wine in hand, sun-cream slathered – and made our way into the President’s Garden to the sound of string music, where the play was to be performed.
The set was minimal, limited to two tables and two chairs, with the string quartet off to the left. The audience was arranged in a semi-circular affair; a mishmash of tables, chairs and picnic blankets that seemed to pre-empt the messy plotlines of the play to come. Trinity College’s President’s Garden was far from empty, with tickets for all showings of the production being sold out.
As chapel bells tolled three o’clock, the garden gradually began to fill with the characters of Wilde’s play, adorned with vibrantly coloured costumes brilliantly designed by Chloe Dootson-Graube, also responsible for art.
And what a cast of characters it was. Eugenie Nevin and George Diggle returned characterful performances as the minor characters Miss Prism and Lane/Merriman respectively. The play’s explicitly comic characters of Dr Chasuble and Lady Bracknell were similarly performed with distinction. Lorcan Cudlip Cook’s bumbling, wizened Dr Chasuble, with his white hair and right-angled body posture, was particularly successful, with the affected quavering of his vocals drawing plenty of laughs from the audience. With a voice that overflowed with enough rolled Rs and brittle articulation to put any royal to shame, Gracie Oddie-James’ Lady Bracknell was a pleasure to watch, evoking the aura of the elderly aunt borrowed from nineteenth-century fiction without resorting to pantomime. Henry Calcutt’s performance as Jack Worthing (one of the two ‘Ernests’) abounded with energy, and the chemistry between him and Abi Watkinson’s Gwendolen Fairfax was thoroughly believable. Watkinson’s Gwendolen, with her carrot-coloured dress, was brilliant, embodying a stubbornness that played excellently against the gushing confusion of Calcutt’s Jack. Grace de Souza too embodied the young Cecily Cardew excellently, delivering lines with an innocence and naïve fantasy that fitted her character’s status as Jack Worthing’s ward. Yet, the standout performance of the show, for me at least, came from Cormac Diamond in the role of Algernon Moncrieff, the other ‘Ernest’ of the play. Perhaps it’s just his ginger shock of hair, but there was something Redmayne-like in the mixture of timidity and poise with which Diamond delivered his lines, always feeling comfortable in the heightened language of Wilde’s dialogue. The cast as an ensemble really were excellent, and all should be praised for the performances that they gave.
I really can’t praise what the directors Rosie Robinson and Costi Levy, alongside producer Daisy Gosal and assistant producer James Waterman, have done enough. Battling a tricky set of lockdown restrictions over both Hilary and Trinity term, the team have produced a fully realised in-person production, for which this weekend’s weather – it seems – rewarded them. Couched in the presidential gardens of Trinity college and coming amidst end of year exams for many, this play really does provide what its subtitle promises: ‘A Trivial Comedy for Serious People’. It’s the sort of production that would make even the most timid want to get involved in Oxford drama – and that’s in earnest.