The Importance of Nothing – Project Arts Centre – Review by Shane Larkin
Until the 19-11-16 as part of the One Time Season
Pan Pan theatre are in somewhat familiar territory here. Repurposing and reinvigorating the work of a legendary playwright with a healthy measure of Brechtian alienation and creative self-reflection; The Importance of Nothing sees director Gavin Quinn and co. set their gaze on the life and work of Oscar Wilde for the first time. Or rather, the idea of Wilde as a cultural figure, as a gay icon, as a martyr, and the notion of reading and performing Wilde’s work today. Quinn’s material was generated through an exhaustive process of close collaboration with his actors, and it is both a detriment to the play and one of its most endearing charms that this nebulously-curated approach is so self-evident in the final product. It feels curiously unpolished and unfinished, muddled in its messaging but intermittently captivating and hilarious when its anarchic spirit is permitted to soar.
We are in an imaginary, modern-day prison, as facilitator and drama therapist Lady Lancing (Una McKevitt) conducts a series of anti-homophobia workshops with three inmates (Andrew Bennett, Mark O’Halloran and Dylan Tighe). Two of them, Robbie and Lar, are gay. The third, Prejudiced Gerald, is not so sure. Lancing hamfistedly encourages the inmates to reimagine and refashion Wilde’s work, weaving it through his life and the hardships and tragedies that ultimately befell him towards the end, as they build up to their own performance of ‘A Woman of No Importance’.
Like its subject, The Importance of Nothing is often animated by some great ideas. It tries to confront some of the fundamental principles surrounding any serious discussion of Wilde and his work; chiefly the relationship of the subjective to the objective, of an individual to his society and the conventions of his time, of the present to the past, and of life to art and vise versa. It’s an ambitious approach that’s often as ingenious as it is obtuse and unfocused, but the play’s real pleasures lie in the specificity of its brilliantly drawn and performed characters and the bawdy hilarity of their interactions.
A particular high point is a series of poetry readings on an imaginary bus journey to Bundoran. Dylan Tighe’s torturously austere recitation provokes the group’s tensions to an hysterical boiling point, O’Halloran’s Robbie declares it “the worst thing that has ever happened in prison”, and Si Schroeder’s unsettlingly discordant score, Zia Holly-Bergin’s lighting cues and the performances of the cast all coalesce beautifully into a loud, crass, brilliantly-timed crescendo. There are other moments of sustained brilliance throughout but it’s a shame that the show doesn’t always maintain this level of energy. The monologues that bookend the workshop sessions and the disembodied conversations that emerge from the darkness at certain points don’t really land with the intended impact. There is almost a sense that the potential of these characters and where they could be taken is only half-realized.
“A little sincerity is a dangerous thing”, Wilde once opined, “and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal”. Pan Pan haven’t quite concocted the perfect balance here, but they have fashioned something refreshingly original out of their absorption of the great wit’s life and works, probing and prying and endlessly questioning without ever offering any easy answers. The shortcomings of the whole are ultimately outweighed by the strength of individual parts, and the show is ribald and funny enough that he probably would’ve approved anyway.