On certain dates during its run, Stephen Unwin's remarkably fresh account of Wilde's "trivial comedy for serious people" can be seen in tandem with the same director's wistful and witty production of Farewell to the Theatre. Now receiving its much belated European premiere, this latter is a one-act drama by Harley Granville-Barker (1877-1946), one of the great pioneers of the English stage who – after making innovations in the field of socially committed repertoire, ensemble acting and Shakespeare production liberated from literalism – effectively retired at the age of 40 from much practical contact with the theatre.
There's not much continuity of theme between the two pieces, although, as Unwin notes, there is an enjoyably piquant perversity about mounting a comedy conceived for picture-box presentation together with a drama that contemplates a type of theatre that moves beyond those boundaries on the Rose's wide, Elizabethan-style thrust stage. The imposing gilt-edged proscenium arch that is a constant in Hayden Griffin's eloquent design pulls the symmetrical patterning of Wilde's masterpiece into attractively crisp focus and acts as a sort of spectral frame to the encounter dramatised in Farewell to the Theatre.
The pairing certainly allows Jane Asher to pull off a strikingly accomplished double. Smashing the old boot mould and flashing gracious smiles that could curdle milk in the udder, she's an almost sexily severe and handsome Lady Bracknell. Resplendent in peacock-blue and radiating a poised playfulness, Asher also portrays Margaret, the grande dame du theatre who, in Granville-Barker's play, comes to consult her solicitor and friend Edward (a gentle, injured giant of unrequited devotion in Richard Cordery's lovely performance).
Asher captivatingly communicates the brisk lack of self-pity and the wry ruminativeness of a woman who envisages closing down her theatre because she is sick of buttering up millionaire backers – and despairs of a public who began to reject her art once she turned the mirrors to the wall and drew on living models for her characterisations.
Any settled notion of the truth is deliriously exploded in The Importance. While driving the sublime, near-surreal silliness to giddy heights and revelling in the view that "style not sincerity is the vital thing" in matters of grave concern, Unwin's crack cast never fail to generate the good-humoured warmth that irradiates this simultaneously subversive and conformist masterpiece.
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