Andrew Benson in The Importance Of Being Earnest | Seymour Centre

Since the title of the play implies it is, indeed, important to be earnest, let me just say this production might as well be dubbed “The Impotence of Being Earnest”. Oh sure, it looked good on paper. I was keenly marketed. I was looking, quite earnestly, forward to it. Not least because, not so very long ago, the very same director, Brandon Martignago, working with the very same company, Burley Theatre, has presided over the immensely impressive Beautiful Thing, in the very same theatre.

But this was the Earnest you have, when you’re not having an Earnest. Imagine Benny Hill producing Wilde’s play and you won’t be too far off the mark. There’s a man in drag. Overacting. Comic cliches. I can almost hear Boots Randolph’s Yakety Sax, as I write. Worse still, it’s based on fuzzy thinking: while there are certain concessions to the here and now, mainly by way of Mason Brown’s rather dubious costumes and set (I’ve no idea, for example, why so much of the action is confined to an area so long and shallow, delineated by a sheer, white curtain which would’ve looked more at home in a warehouse apartment than Algy’s flat in Half-Moon Street), the inescapable cadence of the text remains late 19th century. Which begs questions: how can or does one drag it into the early twenty-first, without it kicking and screaming for mercy and Oscar spinning  in his premature grave? Yes, yes, fair enough. Licence is granted in the text, which tells us the time is “the present”, but you have to be able to make it work. I mean, a world where class, society and fashion are everything is so hard to imagine now, right? Well, not for Martignago, who confesses in his programme notes that these were obsessions (of others) he was struck by when he first moved to Sydney.

In their way, the cast is, to a large extent, quite heroic, given the silly things they’ve apparently been told to do. Occasionally, of course, these are amusing and hold some promise for the shape of things to come, but those things generally turn out to be well out of shape. As we file in to take our seats in The Reg, Kurt Phelan, looking preppy, seats himself, large tumbler of gin in hand, waiting for the piano music to conclude, so as to start the play. Quite an inventive conceit, but things go sharply downhill from there.

Michael Whalley enters, as John Worthing (also known as Jack and who Algy knows as Ernest). If anyone is credible on this stage it’s him.

Paige Gardiner is fine, as Gwendolen Fairfax, the object of his affections and Algy’s cousin, but misses the haughty condescension and high-mindedness available to the character, who considers herself an oracle on matters of taste and morality. Instead, she’s endowed with a sex-kitten’s coyness.

Katie McDonald’s Cecily Cardew is dimwitted, overblown and symptomatic of this ill-conceived, bull-in-a-china shop rendering of the work, inasmuch as it hovers somewhere between slapstick, Carry On and Little Britain, entirely obliterating Wilde’s painstakingly wrought subtleties, sophistication and wryness. Cardew, as written, is an entirely believable character, probably the least exaggerated in the play: a slip of a girl who’s built an elaborate fantasy around the idea of Ernest, Jack’s supposed brother. But not as performed.

Tamlyn Henderson makes for an awfully awkward Lane, Algernon’s manservant, but not in the physically comical way of a Chaplin, but the clumsy way of a gangly teenager, his drink trolley running into the furniture. Later, as Merriman, he falls back on a virtual cliche of British comedy: the the unintelligibly speech-impaired butler, at Jack’s country estate. While his execution is good, such gimmicks tend to distract, if anything, from the text. Henderson, also plays the Reverend Chasuble, albeit in a Hawaiian shirt,reincarnated as a kind of new age, male Vicar of Dibley. Again, this serves only to divert our focus. Puzzling. Indefensible. And inexcusable.

Ana Maria Belo’s Miss Prism has some merit, but again, it’s overstated: rather than stitched-up rigidity betrayed by a barely discernible soft centre and secret affection for the Reverend, Prism becomes a bodice-ripping librarian, akin to the barely contained sexual inferno that is Lilith, Frasier Crane’s ex-wife. Indeed, many of the traits extrinsically superimposed on the characters seem to derive from popular cultural rather than literary sources. In itself, that’s ok, but not if the quintessences are obscured or lost.

Finally, as Lady Bracknell, Andrew Benson looks funny, but stumbles too many times to sustain suspension of disbelief. We board the train, but keep getting jolted from the carriage by obstructions on the track which finally cause derailment. Again, caricature is already imbued into what is nonetheless quite a complex character: it’s utterly hamfisted, almost simpleminded, to turn her into a mere laughing-stock, a cardboard cutout from Les Girls, a Mrs Bucket, as it allows critical observations about her cruelty to go through to the keeper. Like so much of this production, tragic, really.

From the first, lines are fluffed, especially by Phelan and Benson. His blithe dismissal of a break from character into laughter in another circumstance might prove disarming and tension-relieving, but here it just makes matters worse: this isn’t Fast Forward. This was opening night and one couldn’t help but surmise a solid week of previews (or more rehearsal) might’ve been advisable, to bed things down. Although really, this is a bed that needs to be remade. Unfortunately, the cast has to lie in it for the rest of the season.

Where does any director get off, thinking Oscar Wilde needs his help; his infusion of comic ideas? Mr Wilde and his characters need no “improvement” and it’s delusional or arrogant to believe otherwise. I’m not generally an advocate of conservatism, in any context, but there are few cases of plays being so perfectly-formed they need no tampering, no added or other impetus; the old-fashioned phrase leave well enough alone springs to mind. And why patronise us? If we, as an audience, find parallels between the hypocrisy, upper class twittery, pretensions, idleness and vacuousness of late nineteenth century English society and our own, well and good: we don’t need anyone to overegg, explain or extrapolate for us. It’s insulting and undignified. Have faith in your audience. Give some credit for a glimmer of intelligence.

In being hung-up on some dubious, overstretched ambition to draw parallels between English society of well over a century ago and Sydney’s social scene, Martignago has missed much of the double-edged incisiveness Wilde has stitched into the fabric of his play. Perhaps he needs to be reminded of its subtitle: a trivial comedy, for serious people. Wilde’s characters are entertaining, but through them he has important things to say. His speculations and debate on the subject of marriage, for example, go way beyond being a prime plot mover, to being a stimulus for reflection. There’s also assiduous attention paid to arbitrary conventions of morality (from mundane manners and mores up) and the constraints they place on individuality and freedom of expression. And that’s but the thin end of a very substantial wedge.

But Burley has seen fit, instead, to angle for the cheapest of laughs. There’s even a food fight, for pity’s sake.

The program has been exceptionally well-designed.

The details: The Importance Of Being Earnest plays the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre until August 3. Tickets on the venue website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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