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
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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear