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
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The lessons of Finding Dory are commendable, but why make a children's film so complicated?

Pixar's latest animation, a sequel to Finding Nemo, gives forgetful fish Dory a lead. Plus: Jason Bourne.

Amnesia is a concern for the heroes of two blockbuster sequels – the Pixar animation Finding Dory and the espionage thriller Jason Bourne. The condition extends to the film-makers, who have forgotten much of what made the original movies so appealing. In fairness, the 2003 Finding Nemo lacked the emotional complexity of top-drawer Pixar. But its story of an anxious clownfish combing the ocean for his lost son served as a neat rebuke to worrywart parents, and it featured one enduring character: the Pacific blue tang Dory. Her short-term memory loss left her in a state of carefree enchantment perfectly expressed by Ellen DeGeneres, whose voice calls to mind a rubber ball thrilled afresh by each new bounce.

Now Dory has a movie of her own, in which she goes in search of the parents from whom she was estranged as an infant. Many of the previous picture’s fish chip in to help, but the script’s argument for inclusivity and diversity is made most persuasively by Dory’s new allies. Hank is a tomato-red octopus who can’t bear to be touched, while Becky, a frizz-haired loon, and Gerald, a bullied sea lion, have learning difficulties that leave them vulnerable to mockery by their fellow creatures. Heroism originates here with the apparently disadvantaged, whose differences ultimately prove to be no sort of disadvantage at all.

The message is commendable, so it’s unfortunate that the execution is so complicated. Incident is stacked upon incident, most clumsily during a final half-hour in which the sea creatures take chaotically to the roads. When there are lulls in the action, these are filled too often by homilies and life lessons that demand no spelling out.

Quality control remains high in the area of animation. From the velvety anemone beneath a lattice of rippling sunlight to the pink-tinted ocean surface at dusk, it is clear that nature needs to up its game to keep ahead of Pixar. The biggest gasps should be reserved for Hank’s extraordinary chameleonic powers, which allow him to blend into a laboratory wall and to mimic a potted plant or a handrail. Impersonating a baby in its stroller, he uses his Mr Tickle arms to propel himself at high speed like a wheelchair-basketball champ tearing up the court. In a film that largely plays it safe, Hank brings a jolt of anarchic danger.

The breakneck editing and neck-breaking violence of the Bourne series, about a brainwashed CIA killing machine who gradually recovers his memory and goes rogue, has been the biggest influence on action cinema since the advent of the car chase. There have been only three instalments until now (four if you count the spin-off The Bourne Legacy) but their style is so ubiquitous it feels as if there’s one Bourne every minute. The latest outing reunites two leading players who swore they were done with the franchise: the actor Matt Damon, looking as bulky and implacable as a tank, and Paul Greengrass, the British director who whipped up a storm in films two and three but consigns it to a teacup this time around.

Rarely has such a fast-paced film felt so weary and resigned. Christopher Rouse’s screenplay throws into the usual paranoid, dystopian, NSA-fearing mix a Zuckerberg-style social media guru (Riz Ahmed) in cahoots with the craggy CIA overlord (Tommy Lee Jones) hunting Bourne. There is also a bright CIA underling (Alicia Vikander) experiencing vague pangs of conscience from her operations hub where po-faced automatons tap endlessly on keyboards; it’s like a Kraftwerk gig without the tunes.

The film makes gestures towards political topicality. But whether it’s riots in Greece or the ongoing tension between security and privacy, everything is reduced to the level of window dressing while Bourne crashes motorbikes, plummets from the tops of buildings and doles out upper cuts as though he were passing around Tic Tacs.

Just once it would be nice to have some character detail or a line of dialogue that went beyond “Suspect turning left”, or the series catchphrase: “You don’t have any idea who you’re dealing with!” Bourne himself is a dead end, dramatically speaking; he has recovered his memory now but his personality and inner conflict have been wiped clean. When he isn’t fighting, he has nothing to do except go woozy with flashbacks and generally outfox the CIA. He should try hiding in the voluminous bags beneath Tommy Lee Jones’s eyes – they’d never find him there.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue