Oscar Wilde, the man, the self-made myth and the legendary artist. Playwright, poet and prisoner, Victorian England's greatest wit and homosexual endured the heights of pleasure and the depths of pain. Extreme in everything, including his ultimate humility, Wilde has become a source of inspiration and fascination, with many paying homage by using his life and works as jumping off points into new terrain. Few though do so with the same humour, originality and unapologetically wild, bawdy energy as Pan Pan Theatre, whose often problematic, but hugely enjoyable romp, “The Importance of Nothing” is wild in its passion for all things Wilde.
Topped and tailed by monologues and disembodied voices, the central core of “The Importance of Nothing” takes place during a drama therapy session in an unnamed prison where metaphors and references run riot. Here, Lady Lancing, a descendant of Wilde’s lover Bosie, with her mysterious husband Omar, conducts durational workshops tackling homophobia with two gay men and one undecided. Hipster cool in the extreme, she's self centre of her bisexual universe where even her self-sacrifice for the poor unfortunates is an act of self-aggrandizement. The poor unfortunates in question, aside from the female Garda at the back of the room exhibiting the patience of Job, are Lar from Limerick, Prejudiced Gerald and the opinionated Robbie, a sort of modern day Oscar Wilde, without the charm and wit, living his life as the only gay in the gay village of Ennis. As the experimental community theatre group prepare to perform Wilde’s work for the Prisoner’s Pride Parade, Wilde proves to be boring, baffling and bawdy as each struggles with themselves, each other and with the worse possible crime in prison: the recitation of bad poetry.
Clunky transitions between scenes aside, director Gavin Quinn cleverly ensures “The Importance of Nothing” captures all the charm and subtlety of a series of sly cuddles, catching you unawares and unexpectedly without you really knowing it. So brilliant is the humour you could almost miss the subtle yet powerful interrogations taking place. Like Wilde’s work, there are secrets hidden beneath the laughter and a burning intelligence at play. Questioning everything by and about Wilde, “The Importance of Nothing” also speaks to many other things including the vanities of actors and directors, as well as a painfully touching exploration of the pain of illiteracy, in one of the plays most ingenuous scenes.
Yet “The Importance of Nothing” is often a little too ingenious at times. Its often hyper natural performances and dialogue are juxtaposed against an overly clumpy set by Aedin Cosgrove, which seems not quite sure what it’s trying to do on occasion, with some hints, like the tea tray, working incredibly well, but others just seeming to unnecessarily take up space. Add to this an often overly dark lighting design by Zia Bergin-Holly, and the whole is lent a sense of a naturalist play being performed within a piece of performance art at times. This is particularly evident during the post interval, dream sequence in which Si Schroder’s chiefly engaging sound design seems to shift from offering support to performance to performances operating around it instead. Indeed, post interval is less successful overall, feeling as if afraid of becoming trapped within the humourous confines of its more successful opening. Throughout, disembodied voices talking in the dark at times, like radio voices from the past, discussing Wilde, his work or your discovery that you were gay, most of which works better when performed directly then when simply heard. It might add another dimension, but it’s not as rewarding or engaging as it could have been. Nor is the ending, a monologue that is both too long and arrives too late, feeling like a tacked on epilogue.
Yet if the ending shows “The Importance of Nothing’s” occasional over reverence of Wilde, the script is generally as irreverent as can be, and all the better for it. Borrowing from Wilde and developed by the ensemble, it’s one of the sharpest, richest, funniest scripts written about Wilde to date. All of which is backed up by some strong performances. If Judith Roddy operates like a substitute waiting to be called on to the field, she acquits herself well when called to do so. As does Una McKevitt, whose understated, almost matter of fact Lady Lancing sacrifices some big opportunities in order to play straight woman to the rest of the cast. All of whom are superb, with Dylan Tighe’s poetry reading Gerald being a real treat. Andrew Bennett and Mark O’Halloran are scene stealing brilliant as the double act of Lar and Robbie, two aspiring actors with wild, lustful passions who could easily give gay a bad name given half a chance.
In “The Importance of Nothing” we might all have to be taught that we’re ugly, but we can also learn to see the stars from the gutters or to find the beauty in the killing of that which we love. To some, Wilde may be boring, but in “The Importance of Nothing” he’s the best boring there is. Witty, wise and wildly entertaining, “The Importance of Nothing” is the best Wilde night you’re likely to have for some time.
“The Importance of Nothing” by Pan Pan Theatre runs at The Project Arts Centre as part of Project 50 and One Time Season runs until November 19th.