Theatre preview: The Importance Of Being Earnest, Birmingham Rep

John Kennedy looks ahead to a fresh take on the Oscar Wilde classic in the company of its star turn Cathy Tyson.

Probably Oscar Wilde’s best-known and best-loved play – certainly the most quoted (if not misquoted) – its pithy and pertinent play on language and skeins of subtle nuance, sensibilities and hypocritical affectations never fail to entertain. This new production may just open up a new Pandora’s box of unexpected surprises – certainly reinforcing the axiom “the truth is rarely pure and never simple”.

BAFTA and Golden Globe nominee Cathy Tyson stars as the indomitable Lady Bracknell. Brum Notes jumped at the opportunity to chat with Cathy, whose refreshing candor and bubbling enthusiasm turned a telephone interview into an engaging and revealing dialogue.

What was your first experience of Oscar Wilde, and Earnest in particular?

Cathy Tyson: Do you know what, my first experience was this May! I’d never seen it or read it before. I’d heard about it, but didn’t even know what the plotline was. I thought it was funny, but we all had to find a reality for the characters, not just that I’m saying this line or that to be funny. I’m not actually talking about timing when I’m actually on stage. I’m not that well versed with comedy – I’ve not really done any at all, apart from when I was at youth theatre – so I don’t know anything about timing. [Hardly! Brum Notes anticipates the iconic “handbag” episode might be more a Mrs Thatcher doorstep moment, possibly?]

Director Nikolai Foster hints at a production concept that is “a world of mirrors”. No spoilers, but what is he suggesting?

CT: I once used to feel that mirrors can be claustrophobic, but not anymore – and, of course, we weren’t rehearsing in front of mirrors earlier today. So I’m not really aware of that effect that Nikolai is referring to – not yet, at least. Interestingly, one of our very first rehearsal spaces in Battersea, we had floor-to-ceiling mirrors, and they gave it a majestic regality, opulence!

A sort of Palace of Versailles, but a lot sweatier?

CT: Well, you might put it that way…

Do you identify with the notion that Wilde’s homosexuality gave him a more-nuanced empathy with how society women were bound by the idealised mores of gentile femininity and purity? Do Gwendolen and Cecily subvert that convention or just play at being flirty?

CT: His homosexuality and how he portrayed women? Interesting! We know he was very fond of his mother. [And profoundly ashamed at breaking her heart with his scandalous behavior on the news of her death.] We need to appreciate his personality as much as his homosexuality. The latter doesn’t necessarily mean you have a passport into responsibilities or specialness. I understand that at his time the expression “homosexual” didn’t even exist. Anyway, back to your question – did it make him more sympathetic to women? Well, maybe!

The demi-Gorgon Lady Bracknell – are you growing to like her? What do you admire about her?

CT: Yes, I do! Of course, I’m getting to know her more and more. She’s an incredibly strong woman and she’s looking out for her daughter. Oh, yes, she’s a snob, and in spite of, or even because of that, I really do like her. I’m not influenced by other people’s performances of her, which is great. Nikolai has never seen a production of this play either, so we are coming to it not trying to do a type, which is incredibly liberating. I’m going with my organic feel with this. I feel in very competent hands. You’ve caught me in a good mood, I feel brilliant!

It won’t take long even for Birmingham audiences to notice that the casting draws on a multi-ethnic ensemble. Co-producers Curve Theatre really do enjoy subverting conventions. Is this part of the production’s theme of double identities, and possibly some subliminal bunburying at the same time?

CT: Ah! After playing it, I don’t feel that multi-ethnicity, because I’m just looking for the words and watching the performances of people. It’s what each of us shares with each other that is the only priority.

Let’s share a lightbulb moment. Do we suspect that Lady B has rumbled Jack and Algie’s Bunbury scam from the very beginning?

CT: Surely this woman knows all about this? Nikolai has suggested this – she’s a sophisticated woman. I did wonder myself. It goes towards this notion of not speaking directly to one another. When you know someone is telling a lie, withholding a truth… Even as simple as when someone asks you, “Are you fine?,” of course you automatically reply, “Oh, yes,” and both of you know this isn’t the case at all. We are playing with ideas like that, maybe even teasing at Jack’s birth and how that might implicate Lady Bracknell. Nikolai had laid the gauntlet down. You feel something is viscerally right and then immediately think, “Hang on, has that never been done before?” It probably, almost certainly, has. Does that sound rather bigheaded? I’m more excited about the newness than what people might say. You can’t go into acting being afraid of what you do. I might limit myself sometimes out of fear, but that’s no good as an actor, is it? You know, I’m so excited at the different ways that we are going to be doing this performance – isn’t that what doing a play is all about?

The Importance Of Being Earnest runs at the Birmingham Rep, September 9-24. For more information, visit http://www.birmingham-rep.co.uk/event/the-importance-of-being-earnest-04-2016/.

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