The Importance of Being Earnest at CC Amstel Theatre, Amsterdam

From the opening dance sequence – set in a gay sauna and performed by a cheerful bunch of scantily clad men – it’s clear that this is going to be a fun and entertaining night at the theatre. An evening’s respite from climate change and global political unrest – what a relief! And even better still, the spoken words you will hear were written by Oscar Wilde. So a whole evening without a single “awesome” or “it was like, you know…” And instead, captivating, complex, intriguing, witty, razor-sharp words – some of the very best the English language has to offer.

Plays do not succeed simply by their words though. If that was the case they’d simply be, well… books. Plays need good actors, designers and technicians. They’re better when they have a good director, and ideally there should be a pleasing venue in which to watch the play. This ‘fun and entertaining’ evening quickly becomes far more than just that, because QETC serves up all these items, all at top-notch quality.

The venue is a lot more than ‘pleasing’, for a start. It’s actually a brand new, 154-seat, state of the art theatre called CC Amstel, tucked behind a smart hotel a block or two south of Ceintuurbaan. In this production the sets are imaginative and well executed, and so are the costumes, hair and lighting. There are some very good actors in the leading roles, and even the smaller supporting roles are performed with passion and commitment. And it’s very clear that some excellent directing is assembling everything together and propelling the whole show forward with zip, vim and vigour.

Mark Winstanley is the man who bears the director title for this play, and he should wear that title proudly. Some savvy creative decisions have been made along the way like… the leading roles are all played by men. So yes, that means Lady Bracknell is performed with panache and grandeur by a Welshman called Brian André. Keith Day and Benjamin Keaton are well cast as Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, respectively, and while both are strong and convincing in their roles, Keith Day took the time to really ‘deliver’ all the sparkles and shades of Wilde’s language – and as an actor appeared to relish every utterance – whereas this ‘joy in language’ seemed slightly more elusive for Alabama-raised Benjamin Keaton.

Men in the leading roles also means that Jack’s love interest Gwendolyn has now become Gabriel, and Algernon’s love interest Cecily has become Cecil. Yes, that also means we’re plunging at full speed into a gay romantic comedy. And it works splendidly. Australian actor Chris Grabski presents very well as Cecil, with just the right measures of decorum and mischief – and he makes a great foil for James Johnson’s camp as a row of tents depiction of Gabriel – a full flight of histrionics and extremes that lands delightfully.

By combining well thought out contemporary elements – instead of writing in their ‘diaries’, the characters have smart phones – in one brief, extremely funny scene the characters engage in speed dating, to the tune of ‘Call Me Maybe’ – instead of all meeting in a Manor House in Act III, the action takes place in a rehab clinic… These elements modernize the content effectively without degrading the original, so the entire piece feels completely fresh, despite its 1895 date-of-origin. And full respect is also paid to the gravitas of Oscar Wilde’s fate, and the fates of other gay men in history. Thank you QETC. That was a delightful night at the theatre.      Matthew Curlewis   7th November 2018