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
OLI SCARFF/GETTY IMAGES
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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era