Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

L to R: Yalin Ozucelik (John Worthing J.P.), Rory Walker (Rev Chasuble), Lucy Fry (Cecily Cardew),
Anna Steen (Hon.Gwendolen Fairfax), Nancye Hayes (Lady Bracknell), Nathan O'Keefe (Algernon Moncrieff).
Off stage: Caroline Mignone (Miss Prism)

Caroline Mignone (Miss Prism), Rory Walker (Rev Chasuble)

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde.  State Theatre Company of South Australia, directed by Geordie Brookman.  Designer: Ailsa Paterson; Lighting: Gavin Norris; Composer: Stuart Day; Hair, Make-up and Wardrobe: Jana DeBiasi.  At Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse, August 18-23, 2014.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
August 19

An enjoyable, if conventional, production of Wilde’s highly amusing comedy of manners, this production stands out for the stage design and a clever approach to stylising the acting.

The set, made by the Company’s workshop for touring, has its own circular curtain which defines the acting space for whatever stage the performers find themselves on.  It’s simple in concept but, with a minimum of props, furniture and suspended lights, and sections of curtain with different decoration, the mood, location of the scenes and the historical period are quickly and smoothly suggested as the butler draws the curtain around.

As the design takes us out of the convention of a naturalistic box set, it follows that the acting includes choreographed movement which takes on a life of its own.  The humour of the play is already built in to Wilde’s one-liners and highly unlikely plot, while, under this director and I suspect his assistant director Yasmin Gurreeboo,  physical actions are used to define each of the characters and how they relate to the others, adding substantially to the comedy.  Perhaps for the first time I was able to see Wilde’s work in the context of English absurdism, which for me goes back to Laurence Sterne’s 18th Century novel Tristram Shandy and on through the university traditions which spawned shows like The Goodies and Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  I could almost see John Cleese’s funny walks and Faulty Towers in the making.

Instead of finding myself wondering if Wilde should be compared with his more or less contemporary Bernard Shaw, this production made it clear that Earnest is nearer to farce than Shaw’s comedies of social analysis, and that this is not a bad thing.  The basic structure of the play is not too far from a Feydeau farce, though Wilde’s servant class do not much more than roll their eyes at their ‘betters’, rather than undermine them.  Wilde focusses on and exposes the human foibles of the upper class without pontificating.  The fun of doing this is what has kept this play alive well into its second century, even in ‘classless’ Australia.  We may not have too many real Lady Bracknells in Canberra, but we surely have plenty of micro-managerial operators, and plenty of young people falling in love with superficial features in the opposite sex and bonding or arguing immediately they meet with others of the same sex.

The performers – Nancye Hayes (Lady Bracknell), Lucy Fry (Cecily Cardew), Nathan O’Keefe (Algernon Moncrieff), Yalin Ozucelik (John Worthing), Anna Steen (Gwendolen Fairfax), Caroline Mignone (Miss Prism) and Rory Walker (butlers Lane and Merriman, and Rev Chasuble) – were all up to the professional mark required, as we expect nowadays from the mainstage companies, both as individuals and as a close-knit ensemble.  The result was a very satisfying presentation of a favourite English classic.