Review: The Importance of Being Earnest/A Soldier and a Maker

A gloriously irreverent operatic adaptation of Oscar Wilde's classic.

The Importance of Being Earnest/A Soldier and a Maker

Barbican Hall Thursday 26 April/Barbican Pit Sunday 29 April 2012.

It’s clear from the first bars of Gerald Barry’s new operatic adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest that tradition can expect little by way of kid gloves. Wilde’s cucumber sandwiches might have survived intact, but as crunching, splintering brass chords dismantle the wreckage of Auld Lang Syne, the barely-familiar melody pulsing with rhythmic death-throes, it’s clear that this comedy of manners has taken its battle of the sexes out of the drawing room and onto the streets.

A plot thinner than an ingenue’s waist provides the structure on which Oscar Wilde hangs some of the sharpest, swiftest wit, making for a delightful piece of theatre but a decidedly unlikely basis for the ponderous pace of opera. There’s a reason comic operas tend toward the slapstick.

Yet what Barry has achieved here is remarkable, both on its own terms and as a skilled reinvention of a classic. Cutting the play with brutal enthusiasm and sticking to his own astringent, contrarian sound-world, he creates a sophisticated piece of musical comedy whose energy is impossible to gainsay. Cross-casting Lady Bracknell as a bass (a suitably stentorian Alan Ewing) gives the role the sexless gravitas it calls out for, and helps anchor Barry’s unwieldy phrases as they lumber expressively from the lowest regions up into falsetto. Ewing’s vomitous delivery of “A handbag” is a worthy rival to Edith Evans’.

Reworking Lady Bracknell as a composer (a devotee, naturally, of the German school) allows Barry’s musical humour to romp in moments of pastiche (a military march at the mention of the French Revolution) and two extraordinary vocal orchestrations of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, exploiting the neurotic tenorial extremes of Peter Tantsits’ John Worthing. But while both Tantsits and Joshua Bloom’s Algernon manage to shape Barry’s athletic vocal lines into fully characterised melodies, it is Barbara Hannigan’s Cecily who shines brightest, plucking top Ds from the air, and clashing with Gwendolen (Katalin Karolyi) in a vocal battle of wilfully non-musical vigour.

Loud-hailers, smashed plates (40 sacrificed in each performance), and even a pair of riding boots are all enlisted to Barry’s irreverent cause, marshalled in a witty attack on Serialism and the intellectual affectations of Schoenberg et al. Under Thomas Ades, the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group shaped Barry’s orchestral textures with precision, giving just the right amount of bite to a work whose technical credentials and inventiveness have shown up the various toothless excuses for contemporary opera London has been fobbed-off with recently.

Taking a rather more reflective approach to tradition, pianist and broadcaster Iain Burnside’s latest homage to English music, A Soldier and a Maker, explores the life and work of Ivor Gurney. A casualty (mentally if not physically) of the First World War, Gurney never fully recovered from his experiences, and his latter years in a mental hospital robbed Britain of an composer who might have rivalled his contemporary Herbert Howells for elegiac pastoralism.

Interweaving performances of Gurney’s own music with drama fashioned from letters, medical records, and accounts from Gurney’s friends and colleagues, Burnside has created a vivid if slightly overloaded piece of theatre (Gurney’s own works rarely outstay their welcome) that frames the composer’s valleys and meadows within war, psychological collapse and the changing social landscape of post-Edwardian England.

Burnside’s young performers from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama throw themselves gamely into the period, simpering, guffawing and jolly-good-chap-ing with gusto. Richard Goulding’s Gurney is brittle and touching – ever the outsider – and balanced by the impossibly smug Howells (Nicholas Allen). The singing is a mixed-bag, at its best in ensembles, but mention should be made of some fine work from Alex Knox and Adam Sullivan, whose beautiful phrasing mirrored the curving hillsides so beloved of the composer.

Gurney’s is a life that lends itself to dramatisation, a slow-building, episodic tragedy of creative waste, but one that occasionally struggles here to break free of the weight of Burnside’s research. Tellingly it is in the bald accounts of Gurney’s sister Winifred (Bethan Langford) and the simple grasp and sigh of Gurney’s own music that the drama finds its centre – truest testimony to the slight, unassuming genius of this neglected artist.

A 1934 production of The Importance of Being Earnest
Another Man
Show Hide image

Harry Styles’ starring role in Another Man magazine proves he is the perfect teen idol

Nostalgic, androgynous and fresh – One Direction’s most famous face is as traditional a heartthrob as it gets. Music critics should know better than to write him off.

In As You Like It’s famous “seven ages of man” speech, Shakespeare splits the everyman’s life into seven parts. Three central, youthful ages stand out. The schoolboy, “with his satchel / And shining morning face, creeping like a snail / Unwillingly to school.” The lover, “sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballad / Made to his mistress’ eyebrow”. And the soldier, “full of strange oaths,” with a patchy beard, brimming with ambition.

Today, an equally significant work made its way into the world – the most recent issue of Another Man magazine, which stars Harry Styles in three separate editorial shoots, as well as interviews between him and Paul McCartney and Chelsea Handler, and an essay on his youth written by his sister, Gemma Styles. In each shoot, Styles bears a resemblance with each of these three Shakespearean stages – in one, he sports a boyish bowl cut outside his old school, another casts him as a wistful, long-haired lover decked out in red, the third sees Styles with a new, short crop (done for the upcoming film Dunkirk, in which he plays a soldier), more masculine tailoring and barely-there facial hair.

The photoshoot marks something of a milestone in Styles’ career – something he seemed to confirm himself when he preceded sharing the magazine’s three covers on his Instagram feed with three blank posts (now, when you click on Styles’ Instagram page, there is a clear white line between his pre and post- Another Man pictures). This is his first interview and photoshoot since he left One Direction, and cut off all his hair for an acting role, and aside from the odd grainy fan picture or long-lens pap shot, fans have hardly had a glimpse of him since.

So, if this is a statement about a decisive moment in Styles’ trajectory, what does it actually say? Do the three different styles of shoot represent the ghosts of Harry’s past, present and future? Is his sheer versatility a way of presenting the former boyband star as a full-blown actor? In terms of the magazine’s written content, we don’t really discover anything about Styles we didn’t know before.

In his short phone interview with McCartney, Styles’ questions (“When you first went from being in a band to being on your own, what was the creative side of that like?” and “How did you find going from touring with so many people around you, to going out doing songs you’d written every word of?”) suggest he plans to write and perform solo music, and he briefly discusses his acting work with Chelsea Handler (“It’s a challenge, but it feels good to be out of my comfort zone”).

But the rest of the issue feels firmly nostalgic. Styles reiterates how much he loves returning home to Holmes Chapel (“that’s one of the places for me where I feel like I disappear the most […] I go back to Cheshire a lot and walk around the same fields”), the rush he had performing with his former bandmates (“there’s no drug you can take that gives you that same high”), while his sister reflects on his moments spent boiling pasta, playing with the family dog, and running baths for their mum. “It’s cool to have such specific moments in your mind to look back on,” Styles tells Handler.

The three shoots are nostalgic, too. This latest issue of Another Man follows one themed around Mick Jagger, the Rolling Stones and the “heirs to his throne”. As Styles is his most obvious successor (often compared to Mick Jagger in both looks and charisma), two of these shoots feel almost as though they were intended for that previous issue. Both the boyish, Sixties Beatles and Stones-inspired shoot – “Tomorrow is a Long Time”, shot by Alasdair McLellan – and the ragged rockstar story, “Anything That’s Part Of You”, shot by Willy Vanderperre – reference specific Jagger photographs and his general vibe.

On seeing the new covers, the Guardian proclaimed: “Harry Styles proves the heartthrob is dead: long live the artthrob”. It saw the shoots, with their high fashion aesthetic, and placement in a niche fashion magazine, as well as Styles’ ability to move from boyband star to actor to potentially authentic singer/songwriter as proof that the old concept of a heartthrob has died. The article says he is “not just a teen dream any more”, “revelling in a context that couldn’t be further from his One Direction past”, and adds: “To win hearts in 2016, you now have to offer artistic value. And you have to hustle.”

But what these visual callbacks to Jagger emphasise is that Styles is, in fact, a very traditional heartthrob – his very appeal may be due to the fact that he is the most traditional heartthrob we’ve had in years. Like McCartney, John Lennon, David Bowie, Jagger, Marc Bolan, or Kurt Cobain, Styles is creative, interested in fashion, androgynous, boyish and followed around the world by a stream of enthusiastic fans, who are mostly young women. And, perhaps in no small part due to that last detail, like all of them, he has been dismissed as a cheap fad by music writers who should probably know better.

In “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, TS Eliot said that a truly “traditional” writer is that which has “a sense of the timeless, as well as of the temporal, and of the timeless and of the temporal together”. This is also what makes that writer contemporary, and aware of his own specific moment in time. “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.”

If we apply that logic to the long list of teen idols, Harry Styles ticks all the boxes. Nostalgic, androgynous and fresh – Styles is as traditional as it gets. May he retain his place in the canon for centuries to come.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.