THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, Sydney Theatre Company at Roslyn Packer Theatre, 10 September - 14 October 2023. Photography by Daniel Boud
The two worlds – upstairs and downstairs – of Oscar Wilde’s most successful comedy have rarely been so clearly delineated as they are in Sarah Giles’s new production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Three-quarters of the Ros’s stage is a spacious, chandelier-lit, luxurious drawing room. The fourth quarter is the kitchen, “below stairs”, gloomy, drab, and joyless, where one of the servants (Sean O’Shea) is lugubriously fashioning a noose.
Later, the London mansion is replaced by a country house garden whose roses are a work of gleeful imagination, and so on. Set designer Charles Davis and lighting designer Alexander Berlage have used STC’s resources to fabulous effect.
The same can be said of Renée Mulder’s costumes. With extravagant garments reminiscent of Bridgerton, the excess of excessiveness in gowns and gentlemen’s apparel would have delighted Wilde himself. Another unexpected pleasure is the sound design. The opening moments, and each major location transition, are drolly clever as Stefan Gregory mixes pop and baroque without a quaver of reverence.
That last is possibly the most notable thing about the production: Giles is thrillingly confident in her comedic choices (think Dario Fo’s No Pay? No Way! and Accidental Death of an Anarchist). She has drilled that assurance into her cast. The result is fresh, zany, and original by turns. The opening night audience loved it to the point of drowning out occasional dialogue. The actors apparently weren’t accustomed to such a riotous reception and failed to wait for quiet!
The play itself is one of theatre’s enduring delights. The plot is bonkers as only it could be with the English upper class focusing on all the wrong things, as Giles puts it. Lady Bracknell (Helen Thomson) is the grand dame who once swallowed a Thesaurus. When she feels high society and her position in it are threatened, she spits epigrams and orders with the deadliness of a machine gun.
The biggest threat, of course, is to her daughter Gwendolyn (Megan Wilding) whose marriage to a suitable chap is vital to Lady Bracknell’s digestion. That Gwendolyn is in love with Mr Ernest Worthing (Brandon McClelland) – or at least with the name “Ernest” – matters not a jot when, under questioning, it’s revealed he is a foundling. That he was deposited as an infant in a large leather handbag at Victoria Station (the Brighton line) leads to one of the more famous lines in English theatre. Thomson tosses it off with insouciance.
To complete the stew of improbable relationships, Worthing is best friends with Algernon Moncrieff (Charles Wu), Lady B’s nephew who has his eye on Worthing’s ward, the heiress Cecily Cardew (Melissa Kahraman). She resides in the country under the tutelage of governess Miss Prism (Lucia Mastrantone) who has a dark(ish) past – eventually revealed.
Genteel skulduggery involving an inscribed cigarette case, a non-existent brother, and an ailing friend named Bunbury stuff the play with almost perfect farce. In the background, yet in sharp focus, the servants work a world of class-ridden absurdity all their own. Gareth Davies reinvents obsequiousness as the second butler as Bruce Spence is the factotum worn out by a lifetime’s servitude. As third footman, Emma O’Sullivan struggles beneath the weight of luggage and questionable beard.
Purists – who prefer preservation in aspic – will grumble. The rest of us may rejoice in a fresh, riotous production. To hear 800+ people laughing at brilliantly entertaining theatre is a joy in itself. Even more so: to witness the birth of a new star in the spectacular Megan Wilding, and the continuing splendour of Helen Thomson is elation itself. Recommended without reservation.