There are moments in Gerald Barry’s opera in which, for all its Wildeness, it’s possible to feel quite bored. Moments long before Lady Bracknell glares at the musicians and complains “this noise is extremely unpleasant”, when the jabbing and slashing and jagged angularity of the score creates a similar feeling between the ears to being poked in the ribs or barged by razor-edged elbows. In the best possible way, none of these moments is memorable. If anything, they provide necessary breathing space between a concatenation of vignettes eye-boggling and jaw-dropping and squawkingly hilarious in their invention. For instance:
The bit where Jack unravels the spun yarn of his double existence – Jack in the countryside, Ernest in London – and Barry takes a scalpel to the libretto, splicing phrases and even words so that each line feels like a hurdle race, a series of sprints interrupted by barriers.
The bit where Gwendolen flinches at the name Jack, and the instruments flinch with her.
The bit where Lady Bracknell, having denounced the excesses of French song, performs a German one instead, with as much delicacy as a firing squad unleashing a fusillade, stomping onto a chair the better to strike her target. (Google tells me that the song is Schiller’s ‘Ode To Joy’. Ha!)
The bit where Lady Bracknell instructs Jack to acquire at least one parent, and the pair repeat the scene as a circular Irish reel, legs kicking all the more frantically with every iteration.
The bit where Miss Prism, having lectured Cecily on the necessity of attending to her German grammar, clomps through the same German song as Lady B.
The bit where Gwendolen and Cecily converse through megaphones and, having mutually grasped the possibility that they might both be engaged to the same man named Ernest, become so apoplectic that the pianist leaves his station and begins smashing plates into a perspex box, mirroring the rhythm of their rage.
The bit where Algernon and Ernest sing of muffins and teacakes to the melody of Auld Lang Syne and it turns into a proper bun fight.
No wait, let’s just have that one again: THE BIT WHERE GWENDOLEN AND CECILY ARE INCANDESCENT WITH JEALOUSY AND THEIR VERBAL PUNCH-UP IS ACCOMPANIED BY THE PERCUSSIVE SMASH OF CHINA PLATES.
The bit where Lady Bracknell interrogates Cecily in German, wielding each word like a sledgehammer.
The bit where Jack goes to the back of the stage to find the handbag in which he was deposited as a baby, and kicks over every bit of scenery on the way.
The bit at the end where, for no more necessary reason than devilry and glorious amusement, the singer playing the multi-purpose valet SMASHES SOME MORE PLATES.
There’s more, but you get the general idea, and also, possibly, a misconception of unbridled gimmickry. Take out the interval and the opera comes in at barely 100 minutes: Barry shears the text of anything extraneous to his purpose, which is restoring to the play the spirit of teasing misrule and relentless satire. Even before the second world war, people were wondering if the life had bled from Wilde’s finest achievement; in the decades since its mid-century revival it has become superfluous as chintz, comfortable as pantomime. Barry hacks away every accumulated mannerism, strips the text back to what he has called its “extraordinary metallic … indestructible skeleton” and passes a high-voltage current through it, returning the sting to such savage pronouncements as: “In England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever.” He uses the most elite and particular and demanding of art forms to stab again and again at social and financial privilege. Even if Algernon and Jack radiate that privilege, they reject the status quo enough to appear delightful: a status quo that here comes voiced by the lowest of male basses and dressed in a pinstripe suit. And you should just see the way Paul Ewing’s Lady B emits sparks of fury every time she apprehends the spectre of revolution.
Ramin Gray’s production picks up Barry’s gauntlet and flourishes it. Staged on a bank of wide steps, the singers hemmed in by the Britten Sinfonia, it looks as stark and sharp as the music sounds. Franz Peter David’s lighting is bold and snappy; what little scenery there is comes in for a battering at some point. (I am 100% unsurprised to read in David and associate set designer Ben Clark’s biographies that they work primarily in Berlin. The words “post-dramatic” practically shimmer in neon over the stage.) The singers enter from the pit as though climbing the steps to a wrestling ring – in fact, Paul Curievici’s Jack and Stephanie Marshall’s Gwendolen frequently do wrestle – and even when their characters lounge, it’s at an angle that looks uncomfortable. This is a society maintaining its standing with iron will: throughout, Jack seems mild-mannered and put-upon, but the closer he comes to achieving his natural birthright, the more outwardly aggressive he becomes. Gray has concocted a profoundly wasteful production: the amount of food that gets thrown around, all those plates that get smashed, night after night, is appalling. Yet it’s just the tiniest, most minuscule representative fraction of how careless you get to be, how selfish and wilful, when you’re at the top of the social heap.
Everything ends delightfully, of course, but it’s Simon Wilding’s valet figure, a mostly silent, seething presence, who gets the final word. The opera began with him marching across the stage brandishing a cucumber and attempting to push conductor Tim Murray (impeccable) off his stand; it ends with him at the plate-rack, doing away with the rest of the china. There is a violence at the heart of this opera, identified by Barry as the key characteristic of Wilde’s text, and in Gray’s staging it becomes a question: how visible is this topsy-turvy world around us – and what shall we do to demolish it?
The Importance of Being Earnest was on at the Barbican. Click here for more information.