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"The point that he’s making is the bull**** of the upper classes - we’re still unchanged now"

We chatted to two of the actors in this new production of the famous Oscar Wilde play.

THE IMPORTANCE OF Being Earnest came when Irish playwright Oscar Wilde was at his peak – but it also appeared just before his downfall, when he was imprisoned for being gay.

He was living somewhat of a double life, due to the Victorian moral standards of the day, and he skewered those very standards – and the Victorian upper-class – with this very play.

How The Importance of Being Earnest got away with what it did was because it is a comedy, and so the audience were at many times laughing as they were being made fun of on stage.

“Lighthearted, funny, nuts”

A new production of the play opens on the Gate Theatre stage on 1 December. When TheJournal.ie met two of its stars Marty Rea, (who plays Jack Worthing, JP) and Rory Nolan (who plays Algernon Moncrieff, Worthing’s best friend), they are deep into rehearsals and catching a moment for lunch.

As they eat salads and the noise of the Dublin traffic occasionally filters through from outside, we discuss just what makes this Wilde play so wonderful to act in.

In The Importance of Being Earnest, Rea’s Moncrieff knows Nolan’s Worthing as Ernest, but Worthing is, of course, leading a double life. Meanwhile, Moncrieff is also someone who knows about deception – he pretends to have a friend named Bunbury in the country, and ‘visits’ him whenever he needs to escape.

“The mood of it is so funny, lighthearted, nuts,” says Rea, who made his return to Ireland from London years ago to star in an Oscar Wilde play.

“It’s such a tight play, it’s such a famous play, and daunting in a way,” says Nolan. “Of course Wilde is the star of the show as far as I’m concerned. He’s so witty and so clever and so funny, it’s a real joy to do.”

He adds that you forget “how muscular the whole thing is; how the delivery is so important and how you really have be at the top of your game to get that out and to do it justice”.

“You have to be thinking. It’s a real workout,” adds Nolan. “In that regard it can surprise you and it can feel very fresh when you come to it.”

Rory Nolan and Marty Rea (2) Nolan and Rea in rehearsals

Holding a mirror to society

That Wilde was able to take on Victorian upper-class society in this 1895 play is something both actors are fascinated by.

“The big point that he’s making I think in this which is the bullshittery of the upper classes, we’re still more or less unchanged now,” says Rea.

Maybe the look of the upper classes has changed, maybe we need to talk about the wealthy classes rather than upper classes. If you’re the ones in power; if you’re the ones able to decide what’s supposed to be acceptable and what isn’t socially, then you are allowed to do whatever you want and make up the rules as you go along if you want, what suits you, and that’s what he’s doing in this.

Because this play is “madder and more absurdist” than previous Wildean plays, Rea says it “gives him huge scope then to go completely mad”. But, he cautions: “It’s not as mad as you think when you hear the things that some people say and do and think it’s acceptable.”

Nolan describes Wilde as “seditious”. “You have to remember the audience he’s writing for, this was Victorian England. These Victorians are the upper class of the country that ruled the world, essentially. They don’t see themselves within it.”

“There’s great anarchy in it,” adds Rea. “He was an Irish gay man, flaunting that in the face of upper English society and they welcomed him with open arms, thanked him for it.”

Nolan describes Wilde as “sparkling, he’s on fire”. “It’s so sharp that you have to imagine for Victorians it just must have been one laugh after another. They probably didn’t have time to recover themselves and that’s the way it should be.”

Not just a clever pun on words

Rea says the play reminds him of the Bret Easton Ellis book American Psycho. “Where there’s this guy who’s desperate, almost only going so far as he can because the society that he is in allows him to get away with it. This is kind of the same. Wilde is saying: Look at what these people can get away with, look at how they can behave.”

The title “isn’t just a clever pun on words”, says Nolan. “Jack has to figure it out, it’s like the other characters, they know this already, no one can expressly say it to him.”

The exploration of duality in the play shows “the lengths you’ll go to to deny your own real self, to be seen as part of a certain group or class. To be elitist. Particularly in this country,” says Rea.

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“Somebody said at some point there’s a laugh in every line in the play,” says Rea. “That’s how highly it’s regarded as a comedy in theatre. It’s considered the best.”

Says Nolan: “It’s 120 years old and it’s still very fresh and sparky and fun and witty and potty and absurd.”

‘I remember thinking Shakespeare was for rich people’

Nolan was bitten by the acting bug in school, going on to get involved with the Drama Society in UCD. He got to do “a huge amount of plays”, describing it as “a great time, it was wonderful place – I got to throw every at the wall and experiment”.

As a child, Rea didn’t realise you could be an actor. “I wanted to be a marine biologist,” he says. But a “brilliant” English Literature teacher opened his eyes to the power of Shakespeare.

I remember thinking Shakespeare was for rich people, for posh people, like opera,” he says. 

He decided to go buy a collection of Shakespeare plays, presuming it would be extremely expensive.

remember thinking, it’ll be like hundreds of pounds if you are going to buy the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. I thought maybe I could ask for it for Christmas.

When he got to the second-hand shop, he discovered the book cost around a fiver. “I couldn’t fucking believe it,” he says now. “I still have the copy at home.”

They both say that the life of an actor in Ireland is tough but rewarding. “There are some parts that you find as you go through your working life that stick with you,” says Nolan. “There is stuff that happens on stage where you go ‘this is it, this is what it’s all about’ and there are shows where you don’t connect as much.”

Nolan describes how there “are parts where it just crackles on stage”, and that’s what keeps him and Rea coming back to the job.

And you come off stage and you don’t even realise the time or where the time went, and you’re fully in it and that’s magic, and that’s addictive. And it makes you come back for more.

The Importance of Being Earnest previews are currently on at the Gate Theatre. The opening night is 1 December. 

Read: Revealing the hidden lives of the women behind the genius of Oscar Wilde>

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