My great-grandfather Louis’s distant cousin, who he would have known, was a friend of Oscar Wilde, and in fact he referred to her as his Sphinx – Oscar called her that, not my g-grandfather! So I always feel as if I have a sort of connection with Wilde; although I’m sure Louis would never have met him – although Louis might have attended the Sphinx’s wedding, and so might Oscar. She was Ada Beddington and she married Ernest Leverson, and later had associations, maybe affairs, with Puccini, Sir Arthur Sullivan and the writer Sidney Schiff… Enough of Ada, the Sphinx, and back to Oscar.
The reason I’m thinking of Oscar Wilde is that last night I went to see a performance of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, his last and perhaps his most famous play – certainly the one most well-known today. It was first performed on St Valentine’s day 1895 and ran for eighty-six performances before the show was closed due to the scandal of Wilde’s relationship with Alfred Douglas which resulted in him being imprisoned on May 25th of the same year.
Back to Earnest – if you haven’t seen it, the premise is that two friends each lead secret lives, one by pretending to visit a sick friend called Bunbury, the other by having to visit and bail out his non-existent younger brother Earnest. It’s a romantic farce full of misunderstandings, utterly ridiculous but still funny. The play was performed by the Bleadon Players, an amateur dramatic group from the next village to us, Bleadon. It was performed in the village hall, the Coronation Hall, which is quite small but a happy and enthusiastic audience packed themselves in.
With a small group of actors it must always be a challenge to cast any play; in ‘Earnest’ there is an eighteen year old girl, the ward of Jack Worthington, a twenty-nine year old bachelor – he who has the invented younger brother. There is another slightly young character, Algernon – the chap who goes Bunburying to visit the imaginary invalid, and there are the two young women, The other characters are middle-aged so any actor could play them but for a group of players to find people of approximately the right age as the young persons is always going to be tricky. However, the Bleadon players managed marvellously!
It’s a play with long and difficult speeches; written nearly 125 years ago. For some in the audience it would be so, so familiar, with many famous quotes, the most famous of which ‘A handbag’ must be one of the most impossible lines for an actor to speak, it is so well-known! It really was a most enjoyable evening, a lot of laughs!
The two main characters of Algernon and Jack are on stage nearly all the time – and it’s a tiny stage, but although they were playing the parts of such silly asses, the two actors achieved a real sense of a relationship as friends. The two young women who were the objects of their affection, are more difficult rôles in a way as both seem so different from young women today – however the actors playing the part managed, despite the rôles seeming caricatures of vapid, empty creatures, to give them spark and a realistic sense of fun. Lady Bracknell is surely the hardest part of all, long, complicated speeches which haven’t the same conversational to-and-fro of the other roles – very tricky to pull off! There are smaller rôles too – but it’s so important that they should be portrayed as seriously as the other parts – great credit to all the supporting actors!
I don’t know what the next production will be, but I’m looking forward to it already!