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Sunday, July 3, 2022

‘A wildly enjoyable ride’ – Review: The Importance of Being Nihilists

Aaron Low reviews the new play by Anna Stephen.

Two pianos fall on two men. A surreal and captivating murder mystery unfolds, ably written and directed by Anna Stephen. 

As the Victorian cast of The Importance of Being Nihilists attempts to determine motive and murderer (the means is clear from the beginning), we follow Desmond Beret (Alex Still), a melodramatic, upper-class art dealer often accompanied by his butler (and secret lover) Wilfred Winman (Jack Klein). Along the way, we watch as Desmond’s sister Daphne (Téa Chatila) pines after Laurie Frith (Lucas Ipkendanz), a mysterious and aloof psychiatrist. Rounding out the cast are Lady Amethyst, mother of the Berets and Miss Holypoly (both played by Flora Symington), Strawberry John and Reverend Dev Votion (both played by Adam Najmudin Hall), incredibly named student Eppie Gramme (Esme Rhodes), and Cyril Disorder (Murray Whittaker), a victim of the violent cacophony that opens the play. 

The cast handled their respective roles deftly. Chatila was great as Daphne, buth excellent as her own mother, Lady Amethyst in disguise. Symington did precise work in her dual roles, and I nearly left convinced that I had watched two different actors. Adam Najmudin Hall was well-cast as the reverend, and his cool, laid-back presence on stage was quietly hilarious (perfectly accessorised by his round, slightly-too-small sunglasses), though I found his style of speech hard to pin down, an impediment that shifted between rhotacism and a lisp. I assumed it was to differentiate between the two characters he was playing, but I was never quite sure. For me, the clear standout here was Alex Still, who was deliciously charismatic as Desmond Beret. Cleanly navigating the pit-fall hammy farce, Still wore his mask quite phenomenally. His comic timing and delivery were both fantastic. Most impressive, though, was his clear commitment and attention to detail in his work. I often find that an actor’s hands can often be a tool for the undoing of a performance: they either fidget nervously or seem a little too controlled, a little too acted. Still inhabited his character entirely, executing a sheen of effortlessness through micro-gesticulation and small movements. He is an actor in total command of his performance.

Underneath these great performances, though, Stephen’s script, at once timeless and clearly specific, radiated through. In form, it is clearly Victorian, but with modern sensibilities. It was woven through musings on nihilism and the artificiality of character and personality – difficult subjects by any stretch. There was a constant, dizzying complexity to her words, and characters speak frequently in metaphor and circumlocution, but Stephen is always in control, and there was a definite musicality here. She managed, either consciously or instinctively, to create a rhythm so compelling that you sometimes forgot what exactly was being said. Her skill with language really is extraordinary, and on full display throughout the play’s duration. Some credit must again go to the actors here, who tackled Stephen’s tongue-twisting wordsmithery with barely a slip-up.

Visual and textual gags throughout reinforce Stephen and her crew’s deft hand in writing and direction. One visual gag of Cyril’s full name as written on his casket — Cyril ‘Anwir’ Disorder — I found particularly hysterical. I wasn’t sure about the many repeated uses of self-reflexive humour, but I did like when the dual-role actors went “Blast, I have to go off”, when their other character had to enter the scene. Another highlight was Still leaning on the fourth wall, as Desmond Beret cheekily fiddled with a piece of tape left loosely hanging on an overhead wooden beam (this may have been improvised, but I enjoyed it nonetheless).

I also appreciated the play’s stagecraft, especially on a small and limited set. The single door at the back of the stage was well used, with characters entering and exiting from both directions, which, combined with lighting, smartly communicated changes in scenery. 

Unfortunately, the play’s energy dipped suddenly in the final act: sometimes the plot felt unnavigable and relationships felt unclear, hindered by impersonations and suddenly revealed identical twins. The play constructs a comedy of errors, building to a climax as deceptions are untangled and lies are uncovered and then it…resolves? We learn by the end that Cyril is not actually dead, but that the victim was Strawberry John, a character who looks like the Reverend, both in cast and plot. We learn that Laurie Frith also has an evil twin, whose actions were confusing. There was also a conspiracy about pianos which might have been important. I left unsure about how it all connected. 

All of that said, obviously we’re supposed to be confused, as reassured by Desmond Beret’s own confusion. The pointlessness Beret conveys serves to reiterate the Nihilistic overtones of the play. The spirit of The Importance of Being Earnest is certainly there in character, setting, and tone, but it’s been made sadder and absurdist (in addition to the original absurdity): in short, adapted to our modern era. The characters Desmond Beret, Eppie Gramme, Rev Dev Votion fulfil the fates given to them by their names. Just as in the final act of Oscar Wilde’s play, Nihilists concluded with contrivance upon contrivance. An evil twin? Strawberry John all along? Who is Strawberry John, anyway? The play isn’t faultless, but is a wildly enjoyable ride: intelligent, funny, and a bravura showcase of exciting literary talent.

But we’re supposed to be confused, as Desmond Beret’s own confusion reassures us. The pointlessness Beret conveys serves to reiterate the Nihilistic overtones of the play. The spirit of The Importance of Being Earnest is certainly there in character, setting, and tone, but it’s adapted for the modern era: which is to say, sadder and more absurd. We’re left with a simple truth: not everything has a deeper answer, and perhaps we shouldn’t be looking for one.

Image credit: Hetty Nicholls

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