STAGE REVIEW: The Importance of Being Earnest @ Northern Stage, Newcastle (04.10.22) | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Image: The Company of The Importance of Being Earnest by Mark Senior

Denzel Westley-Sanderson’s direction of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest does not tread new ground with its all-Black cast, nor is it especially groundbreaking to camp up the farce in this iconic comedy drama. And yet, the English Touring Company’s production of Earnest altogether breathes new life into an already timeless classic through its unapologetic commitment to the original story and setting, and its treatment of these characters beloved by theatre-goers for over a century. 

Allow me to explain – this cast list should not be revolutionary, yet it often is. It should not be a risqué move open to critique by those who are led to believe no Black person set foot on British soil until the 1960s, yet there will still be those dissenting voices. A Drag Queen in the role of Lady Bracknell and a same-sex relationship between two Victorian women shouldn’t get certain someones hot under the collar (because it just “wasn’t the done thing” in the 1890s), but there will still be some who forget that The Importance of Being Earnest’s own playwright served time for ‘gross indecency’, (i.e. homosexual acts) mere months after its premiere. 

The real revolution behind Westley-Sanderson’s staging of The Importance of Being Earnest lies in its decidedly unrevolutionary feel: no dialogue was changed, plot points remained unaltered, and its denouement was still as satisfying as it is completely ridiculous. Instead, Black people, queer people, and Black queer people are simply allowed to exist in this story, as they have done all along and will continue to do. Further strength in the telling of this infamous satirical tale of high society and identity instead lies in the performers who added their own spin on their characters, which subtly updated the play for modern tastes without impeding its careful construction. 

Young ward Cecily’s actions, instead of being interpreted as a result of benign innocence, take on an air of chaos and unpredictability through Phoebe Campbell’s wayward performance that’s much more befitting of an 18 year old to the modern audience. Lady Bracknell’s intimidation of the Ernests is all the more threatening with Daniel Jacob’s (also known as Drag Race alumni Vinegar Strokes) proactive and imposing stage presence – one certainly would not want to get on the wrong side of the Moncreiff’s matriarch. The upper classes of Wilde’s play are as restrained by trivial social tradition as this cast is unrestrained and let loose on this transformative piece of theatre. 

At its heart, the ETT’s Earnest is still a story about pleasing the in-laws, parenting unruly youths, and trying to have a good time free from consequence. And that, dear reader, is some proper representation. 

The Importance of Being Earnest is at Northern Stage, Newcastle until Saturday 8th October. There’s a post-show discussion after the production on Thursday 6th October.


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