No one has ever disputed that it is an extremely witty play. Its most famous lines are given to Lady Bracknell, who declares, on discovering Jack Worthing’s orphan status, ‘To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.’ And in the same scene, ‘You can hardly imagine that I and Lord Bracknell would dream of allowing our only daughter—a girl brought up with the utmost care—to marry into a cloakroom and form an alliance with a parcel.’
Oliver Parker, the director of the new lavish production, was convinced from the start that a straightforward staging of the play, predominantly set in drawing rooms, would not be cinematic enough for a modern audience.
However, he sticks quite closely to the plot with all its far-fetched absurdities. Algernon Moncrieff, or Algy (Rupert Everett), is a ne’er-do-well with a lifestyle beyond his means, who uses the frequent ill health of an imaginary friend, ‘Bunbury’, to escape to the country whenever Lady Bracknell or his creditors prove too demanding. Jack Worthing (Colin Firth), guardian to Cecily Cardew (Reese Witherspoon), is the perfect country gentleman. But Jack, too, has an alter ego—a reprobate brother, Ernest, whose unpaid bills necessitate regular trips to town, where he maintains a bachelor pad.
Mr Worthing’s man-about-town days are numbered, however, because he is in love with Lady Bracknell’s daughter Gwendolen. While he is seeking her hand in marriage, Algy slips off to the country where he introduces himself to Cecily as the renegade Ernest. Complications arise because both Gwendolen and Cecily insist on marrying men named Ernest. Then there’s a subplot involving Cecily’s repressed governess Miss Prism (Anna Massey), and the equally repressed rector, Dr Chasuble (Tom Wilkinson).
A debate has raged for years about whether the play has hidden allusions to homosexuality. ‘Earnest was a 19th century euphemism for gay, and speculation is rife about other double meanings. ‘People have their theories.’ says Parker. ‘Some are a little far-fetched. But I can’t believe Wilde wouldn’t have a bit of a joke about it.’
The atmosphere on set was equally light-hearted—Dame Judi Dench would often play practical jokes, notably on Firth. ‘She described me as like a trout—I would bite on the first bait of a practical joke,’ Firth says. ‘One day we were all sitting in our trailer park having lunch in the rain. She had this bird of prey on her head. I thought, “Photo opportunity!” I went off for two seconds to get my camera but when I came back everyone had disappeared. She had managed to get three departments to hide behind the trailers.’
‘Get out of Judi’s eyeline!’ someone yells and yes, they mean me. I leap to the side—am I still in it? I’m not sure. Dame Judi Dench, 68, famous for playing great but fierce ladies, seems to be giving me a frosty stare. It’s not surprising that she is miffed as she looks as if she has an enormous fruit bowl stuck to the front of her head, while her bust is so stuffed out it could knock you down.
We are all gathered at West Wycombe Park, a National Trust property in Buckinghamshire, to watch the creation of a brand-new version of The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde’s most popular play, written in 1895. The house, built in 1706, with rolling lawns, lakes, islands, Greek temples and a mausoleum, makes an admirable backdrop to Wilde’s story of grand people trying to outwit each other.
On the steps of the Palladian north front of the house, the lead actors are intoning a scene. Colin Firth, fresh from his triumph in Bridget Jones’s Diary, but still best known as Mr Darcy in the BBC’s version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, is playing Jack Worthing, who is a good egg, if a little pompous. Jack himself could be a direct descendant of Mr Darcy, but there are no wet shirts in this production, just tight neckties.
In front of him, Oscar-winning Dame Judi Dench stands on girlish platform shoes, which are required to make her look taller. Beside her is Reese Witherspoon, 26, the blue-eyed blonde film star from Nashville, Tennessee, who is playing the innocent country girl, Cecily Cardew. And lurking behind them is gaunt, moody-looking Rupert Everett. He looks as if he has got the hangover to suit the part, or perhaps he is just overdoing the idea of Algy being a member of the bored, idle rich. There is a shout of ‘Action!’ from somewhere below us down the hill, but that is not what we get. They go on muttering their lines, clearly still rehearsing.
The actors have been filming since April and there are still months of filming to go, which is not surprising since whole days are often spent shooting one short scene. Despite being given endless chances to get it right, they all seem strangely jittery and I am warned not to approach any of them for a chat. This makes them fascinating and rather scary, particularly Colin Firth.
Away from these aristocrats of stage and screen, other people on set appear far more relaxed about the day’s work. Film extras and technicians, with beer bellies and shorts, sprawl over the manicured lawns like a huge band of gypsies. ‘We get paid £60 a day, and “wet money” if it rains, with the perk that you can sometimes get off with one of the actors,’ says Cloe Jackson, 18, from Essex, an extra playing a parlour maid. ‘I wouldn’t mind falling into Colin’s arms,’ she says with a wink, ‘would you?’ All women feel like that, of course, even if we pretend not to. As we speak the object of our lust is scowling into a video machine watching his performance, then he walks away with a look of intense misery.
Like the 1952 film—directed by Anthony Asquith, son of World War I prime minister Herbery Asquith—this one is being directed by the offspring of a distinguished Brit. Director Oliver ‘Ol’ Parker, who directed Rupert Everett in an opulent film version of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband three years ago, is the son of the late Sir Peter Parker, the former chief of British Rail.
However, there the comparison ends. When the former was as British and true in Wilde’s birting wit as it was possible to be, the latter has chosen an international cast, and the 2002 version, to be released on September 6, is Importance as you have never seen it before. If you grew up thinking that it was a play chiefly about style which cocked a snook at upper-class snobbery—think again. In this adaptation it is about empowered young women battling with their sexual fantasies before ‘finding themselves’.
In the play and the original film, little Cecily is extremely naive but coquettish; she likes the idea of being in love but is also extremely sensible about her place in society. But director Parker doesn’t deal in the subtleties of Victorian repression that Wilde found so hilarious to parody—he intends to root out the manifest content and put it all up there on the screen for us to see in glorious Technicolor. We see Cecily tired to trees, while the unlikely figure of Rupert Everett as a knight on a white charger appears to rescue her. Brittle little Cecily was described to me by one of the production staff as ‘a Pre-Raphaelite Ophelia. A deeply romantic girl’.
Reese Witherspoon, playing Cecily, is certain that the Cecily we knew before was quite wrong. ‘She knows how to questions authority,’ she says in the Tennessee drawl she has been working hard t eradicate for the film. This comes as a surprise if one remembers sweet 21-year-old Dorothy Tutin batting her eyelids as Cecily in the original film. ‘You can’t just take her as she is written on the page, you have to find the real person, so that the audience relates,’ says Reese, ‘so it doesn’t seem like one big joke. I was looking for a good placement in reality,’ she says, ‘to access a modern audience.’
In other words, for her the play is not a light social commentary, it is about the role of women in Victorian society. ‘Oliver wrote it to be modern,’ she says. ‘If bits come in from the past, for instance when Cecily says she can’t emulate a man’s physical strength, then it has to be ironic. She sees Algy as a white knight coming through the forest to rescue her when she is tied to a tree, but she is also his equal. Sometimes she dominates him. By bringing a modern attitude to the work,’ she says, ‘we are bringing longevity to Wilde’s career.’
Australian actress Frances O’Connor, 33, who hit the headlines playing the naughty Madame Bovary on BBC2, plays Gwendolen, Lady Bracknell’s daughter. She has a slightly more complex view than Witherspoon, but her Gwen will be very different from the husky, sly version played by Joan Greenwood in the original film. ‘The way women played their parts in the 1950s was very different,’ she says. ‘Very stylised, as if they weren’t connected to themselves. They acted too girlie. My Gwen has girlie moments, but the director wants us to be real. I want Gwen to be clever, quite empowered—up for anything. We don’t just want to see four actors faffing about, we have to show real characters and their needs. Ol wants me to instil her with reality.’
Even Algy’s aunt, Lady Bracknell, that famous Gorgon, has had a back story especially written for her in this film. According to Parker’s version, she was once a dancing girl who seduced Lord Bracknell to get heserlf into society, where she became a stickler for etiquette and class distinction. Instead of being the cunning, hard manipulating old bat we’ve seen before, she is now sweet on Algy and easily fooled by the men. A soft, cuddly old aunty in fact.
Up on the steps three hours later, they are still doing the same scene, watched by a group of tourists who have come to visit the National Trust location. Between takes, Colin Firth is now pacing about like an expectant father. ‘I can’t believe we are seeing Mr Darcy, just look at him,’ says one woman from Cromer. ‘And we saw Dame Judi Dench down there going to lunch. Is this for a film or what?’
I can begin to understand why the actors are so jittery about being watched by the public. In their flat sandals and large skirts, many of them look strangely like Margaret Rutherford, who played the love-lorn spinster Miss Prism in Asquith’s film. Anna Massey is now in the role. As Massey herself only found true love at the age of 50, she will probably have something special to add to that part.
‘I couldn’t live like that,’ says one elderly man eyeing the actors and the extras with deep suspicion, or perhaps he is referring to me as I start to doze off on the grass. Some of the tourists, not knowing their place at all, help themselves to the tea and coffee provided for the actors.
I am awoken by the sight of Colin Firth himself coming towards me, looking like a half-tame grizzly bear. What do I do? Just go on lying in the grass, or sit up and say something—not a dilemma one gets every day. ‘Go on, go on, here’s your chance,’ hisses a very plain corseted extra, as he stumps on past. Missed it—he doesn’t even notice us, so near and yet so far. Perhaps next time, who knows? Even if the director is obsessed with ‘reality’, the rest of us are quite content to spend the day staring at film stars from a distance and dreaming of romance.