Get an exclusive insight into the incredible The Importance of Being Earnest set by award-winning Designer Eleanor Bull.

When I first read Josh’s updated treatment of the original script, I was struck by how effectively Wilde’s commentary on Victorian Society could be transposed into a contemporary context. I was interested in the mirroring of the generational divides and the anxiety of the younger generations; caught in a trap of play-acting as adults by the standards of their parents’ generation, whilst also being the Idle Rich: full of ennui and studious-ineffectiveness that meant their daily routines amounted to little or no consequence. It seemed such a natural fit that Lady Bracknell became this austere and judgmental Baby Boomer, that Jack and Gwendolen became these painfully self-conscious and mildly vapid Millennials, whilst Cecily embodied the disruptive, catalytic spirit of a chaotic yet self-assured Gen-Zer.


The set felt like it needed to create an environment in which these ‘Internet Age’ characters inhabit: speaking of algorithms and A.I, of Instagram and TikTok, and of this hollow desire towards aesthetics above all else. It had to reflect that intense sense of fun and frivolity and silliness that comes with every production of Earnest, but had to underscore it with a slight sense of stasis and ‘deadness’, like the sensation of being trapped inside a perfume bottle; characters unable to breathe amidst the cloying stillness of fake floral scents.


Early in the process, we decided against creating a realistic, traditional ‘Drawing Room’ set for this production. Often with The Importance of Being Earnest, heightened and exaggerated costumes are used to elevate the sense of ridiculousness which the characters create for themselves- you think of the play and it conjures images of those enormous Victorian leg-of-mutton sleeves, and elaborate picture-hats covered in pheasants, but we thought it would be interesting to flip this dynamic, making the environment the element that was ridiculous and populating it with recognisable and real-feeling characters. The aim was to try and create a greater sense of relatability when thinking about the text in a modern context: yes, these are very privileged characters with trivial problems, but actually we’re all trying to find a sense of purpose in the increasingly absurd landscape of modern living, lives dominated by fakeness and facsimile: an environment often defined by what ad-execs think will sell product, and the rise of virtual reality and the Instagram-able ‘Immersive Experience’.


Our starting point was Earnest through the lens of Huysman’s ‘A Rebours’- this idea that the play opens with a pervasive air of melancholy, that Algernon, like the protagonist Des Esseintes, has reached the ‘October of his sensations’, and is on a constant quest for some sort of diversion. In a section of ‘A Rebours’, Des Esseintes initially seeks out beautiful flowers, but as he becomes more world-weary and more discerning, he begins to seek out outstandingly crafted fake flowers- capturing the pinnacle of Nature’s beauty without any of its unruliness, eventually he shifts one step further and seeks out real flowers that are so contrived that they look like fake flowers. This empty pursuit spoke to me of our generation’s relationship with Instagram, but also called to mind a trend that seems to be infecting every high-street establishment hoping to tempt image-conscious Gen-Zers and Millennials through their doors. The whole exterior of shop facades have become covered in headily contrived fake flower displays- spreading over every surface. As soon as you notice one, you’ll notice them everywhere, and it feels very targeted towards a specific demographic and their associated social media feeds. Even florists have begun doing this: creating floral installations of their real flowers to mimic the perfectness of the fake ones adorning the coffee shops down the road.


The very first images I gathered were of these ‘instagram-able’ coffee shops, establishments that were infested with pastel flower installations, and that were, by-and-large, entirely painted pink. I was fixated with pink from the very beginning of this project and couldn’t see it any other way. It was always a very specific shade of pink- that kind of dusty salmon: a pink that somehow manages to be quite sad, and a bit brown at the edges, and apologetically subtle, a pink that every mobile phone cover, scatter cushion and coffee keep-cup was suddenly being manufactured in… a quick goggle of the term ‘Millennial Pink’ will demonstrate that it’s an actual definable shade. There was something about that pink that perfectly reflected the sense of fun and frivolity that’s so charming about the text, but that also spoke to that sense of stagnation that we were drawing from ‘A Rebours’, and furthermore felt intrinsically linked to the identity of the younger generations today. I wanted to explore the idea of what would happen if you exploded these pink floral displays, adding a sense of excitement and movement and chaos to something that had previously felt so airless and still.


I continued to gather a bank of images that spoke to the digitally-generated, highly-curated, substance-less aesthetic of online spaces, exploring different textures for the appearance of Jack’s country garden. This lead me to the work of Digital Artist: Andrés Reisinger, whose work encapsulated both the textural environments that we’d been looking at and also the idea of exploding them. Eventually the neat topiary of the stately garden became transformed into fluffy, Millennial Pink hedgerows, creating a space within the Royal Exchange that I wanted to audience to feel compelled to interact with.


We wanted the play to start in a place that felt untouched by fun, and sat isolated: Algy’s flat, a wealthy black-marble island unsullied by the struggles of the real world. The pink fluffy hedges visually insulate this environment and its inhabitants from the less aesthetic reality of the outside world, coddling the wealthy characters, creating a space in which their trivial problems are allowed to feel significant. We begin in a stagnant space, but as the play finds its mission, and the excitement of a quest begins to build, I wanted the set to feel as if it was growing out into the audience, making the space inclusive of humanity in all its fun and ridiculousness. As the momentum builds, the space explodes to fill the module and the outside of it, ultimately including all of us in the characters’ very human desires to find meaning amidst modern life’s silly chaos. Fundamentally, watching The Importance of Being Earnest should be a joyful, riotous experience, and I wanted the design to help promote that feeling.