Reviewed: The Importance of Being Earnest and Gloriana

Alexandra Coghlan explores two very different productions that share a certain whimsical aesthetic: <em>The Importance of Being Earnest</em> and <em>Gloriana</em>.

The Importance of Being Earnest; Gloriana
Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House; Royal Opera House

This year the Linbury Studio Theatre finally came under the artistic control of the Royal Opera. Until now the smaller space, so useful for contemporary and chamber works, has had little by way of logic to its interesting if haphazard programming, and still less relationship to main-stage productions. Director of Opera Kasper Holten has hailed the change as an opportunity to bring new “coherence” to things, and while we’ll have to wait till later in the season to test this fully, this month’s joyous dialogue of contemporary operas certainly seems a sign of good things to come.

We started with the UK stage premiere of Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Debuted last year in an astonishing concert performance at the Barbican, the opera is that rarest of things, a genuine contemporary classic, even at first hearing. The musical headlines might sound ominous – a refrain of smashing plates (some fifty pieces of crockery meet a shattering end in each performance), a spoken “duet” through two megaphones – but the result is a comic delight, and that in a completely different way to Wilde’s original.

It would be so easy for a composer to rely on Wilde’s words (used unaltered here, except for a few cuts) to carry a score, shaping the music around the distinctive arc and climax of his wit. But fellow Irishman Barry recognises the dangers of this, and subverts all expectations by neatly severing the nerve connections between meaning and music. Words become another percussive texture for him to add to his joyous cacophony, another tool in his elegant parable of absurdism. There’s an anarchy, a danger looming beneath the neat triangles of Wilde’s cucumber sandwiches and maiden aunts that Barry brings to the surface, revelling in reducing an English drawing room comedy to a Irish farce.

It’s fortunate that Earnest is such a strong work, because in Ramin Gray’s minimalist production it gets very little dramatic help. The members of the Britten Sinfonia sit onstage – a nod perhaps to the singers’ textural lines that render them just another instrumental texture. In theory this makes sense but in practice it causes balance issues is you happen to be seated on their side of the auditorium. A few flowers, some muffins and a political economy textbook, and you have the set. There’s a half-hearted attempt at some meta-theatre as singers bleed in and out of the audience, but Gray doesn’t seem to have much to say with it.

The singing – if lacking the incomparable Barbara Hannigan of the premiere – is excellent however, with a young cast tackling Barry’s grinning complexities with gusto. Benedict Nelson is a rakishly charming Algernon, balanced by the perpetually distrait Paul Curievici as John. But they are outclassed by Stephanie Marshall’s Gwendolen (charm and venom in equally beautifully enunciated measure) and Ida Falk Winland in the terrifyingly virtuosic role of Cecily. Hilary Summers (Miss Prism) and the cross-cast Alan Ewing as Lady Bracknell vie for comic supremacy, and the resulting bun-fight is an exhilarating a night at the theatre as you’ll find – one in the eye for those determined to make contemporary opera a po-faced affair.

Whimsy is also in plentiful supply in Richard Jones’ new production of Gloriana for the Royal Opera House’s main stage. Composed originally for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation celebrations, Britten’s opera is a tricky creature that has suffered, perhaps justly, from some neglect since its premiere. The starched-and-polished odour of officialdom hangs around it, chafing against the anti-establishment tendencies of Britten’s personal value in the public pageantry that it seemingly offers. Yet there are cross-currents at work here, and it is these that Jones so unerringly finds out in his exemplary new staging.

Jones wittily frames the tale of the ageing Elizabeth I’s obsession with the Earl of Essex in the context of the work’s own composition – not so much a play-within-a-play as a masque-within-a-masque. Thus the young Elizabeth II arrives at a village hall to witness a laborious tudorbethan community pageant, staged for her entertainment. In a final, inevitable, coup de theatre the two queens come face to face – youthful monarchy staring her future in the face. It’s a sober conclusion to a production that wears the opera’s weighty themes with elegant lightness, offering an emotional chiaroscuro we don’t always get from Jones.

Ultz’s set keeps the central doublet-and-hosed action balanced with offstage goings-on, framing a riot of colourful excess in rather more sober shades. An impeccably-drilled troupe of schoolboys march on with destination placards as the actions moves from palace to city, only outdone as gleeful spectacle by the masque section, with staging decked out in a gaudy display of vegetables. It’s vintage Jones – inventive, entirely OTT, and completely spot-on dramatically.

Britten’s gift for word-setting is sorely tried in Gloriana by William Plomer’s leaden libretto. Fortunately the current Royal Opera cast sing so well that text becomes mere punctuation for some glorious sounds. Toby Spence, recovering from serious illness, makes a fine return as Essex, crooning lute-songs that few could resist. Susan Bullock finds Elizabeth’s imperious chill but also her vulnerability, even if she doesn’t quite equal Josephine Barstow’s performance in Phyllida Lloyd’s classic production. Clive Bayley’s Raleigh, Mark Stone’s Mountjoy and Kate Royal’s Lady Rich all offer strong support, and only Patricia Bardon’s Countess of Essex hasn’t quite the vocal flair she usually brings.

2013 has the feeling of a watershed year in the Royal Opera’s history. Programming is more bolder, casting more luxurious than ever. Holten himself returns as director in the Autumn, and it’ll be interesting to see whether this new life-force at Covent Garden can bring as much interest to his artistic work as his policy-making.

The cast of "The Importance of Being Earnest". Photograph: Royal Opera House/Stephen Cummiskey
Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution