The Importance of Being Earnest
Written by Oscar Wilde
Roslyn Packer Theatre
Sydney Theatre Company
Originally published at: The Importance of Being Earnest - Sydney Theatre Company (NSW) (theatrethoughtsaus.online)
First performed in 1895, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest was written at a time when British life was dominated by English aristocracy. Wilde wrote Earnest at the peak of his career, but sadly it was his last substantial piece of writing. Subtitled as ‘a trivial comedy for serious people’ some of its' original reviewers criticised the work for its' lack of substance, calling it shallow and raising no moral points, but Sarah Giles production ensures Sydney Theatre Company audiences won't leave feeling the same way.
Set in the early 1890s, The Importance of being Earnest is a story of two privileged bachelors who use a fictitious persona to get the best of both worlds. They each create elaborate deception to enjoy their wealth and privilege yet also escape unwanted social obligations that can come with it, all while seeming to maintain the highest standards of decorum. Things get complicated when they fall in love with two equally shallow and indulgent women and the men start to unravel as they struggle to keep track of their own lies.
As the work begins, sounds of Dolly Parton’s ‘9 to 5’ fill theatre, but not as you’d expect it. A classical orchestral arrangement of the piece complete with oboe solo and operatic soprano accompanies the opening scene. Stefan Gregory's sound design blends genres and eras, setting the scene as quirky, camp and not too serious before it's even begun. As the curtain rises, we’re transported into a grand, Victorian era home with high ceilings, antique velvet upholstered furniture, crystal chandeliers and glassware, lush orchids, and so much gold trim. The living area of the home takes up three quarters of the width of the stage, juxtaposed by the grey concrete working and living quarters of the staff alongside.
Photos by Daniel Boud
Charles Davis’s set design shifts our perspective with each act, taking us from the living area to the garden outside, whilst still being able to see the happenings inside the home. Throughout the work the left side of the stage is lush, decadent, and warmly lit, while the right side of the stage remains reserved for the staff. Lit by the sliver of grey light streaming through the tiny ceiling height window, the servant quarters transform from kitchen to bedroom remaining dull and depressing, claustrophobic and cold. Alexander Berlage’s intricate lighting design reinforces the classist themes in the work and heightens the comedy throughout.
The servant staff are a brilliant ensemble, performing characters who speak very little but have a lot of time on stage, they're a constant presence that weave the plot together. Lucia Mastrantone, Emma O’Sullivan, Bruce Spence, Gareth Davies and Sean O’Shea consistently deliver outstanding physical comedy whilst juggling multiple roles. Charles Wu brings an elegant absurdness to the role of Algernon Moncrieff, the first of the two ‘earnest’ bachelors. Brandon McClelland plays John Worthing (earnest bachelor #2) with remarkable comedic timing and a loveable charm. They both give quite cartoon like performances which are very entertaining but left me wanting more authenticity at times.
Helen Thomson is brilliant in the role of Lady Bracknell. While the character is completely over the top, her performance is not. It was extremely grounded, a great contrast to the ‘Earnests’ and scurrying staff. Megan Wilding shines as Gwendolen Fairfax. Her comedic timing is flawless, the spoken delivery, physicality, and facial expressions all make her completely magnetic on stage. Wilding has captivating chemistry with Melissa Kahraman who plays the role of Cecily Cardew, the naïve and love-stricken teenager. Kahraman is infectiously bubbly and extremely watchable.
“In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing” – Gwendolen Fairfax, Act III. Renee Mulder’s costumes are a work of art and imbue Gwendolen’s statement perfectly. Using bright contrasting colours and bold structured shapes, the articles of clothing are absurd and flamboyant, think Victorian couture unhinged. One of Lady Bracknell’s costumes draws inspiration from the fine blue and white china she’s just been drinking from, looking like part of the tea set come to life.