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

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism