The Importance of Being Earnest (W!LD RICE)
QPAC, The Playhouse
September 11 – 13
There is something about “The Importance of Being Earnest” that reflects a refinement contrary to its farcical comical nature. And it is a notion that is highlighted as audience members are welcomed in this instance to the soiree of the show by the on-stage string quartet and front row silver service of cucumber sandwiches (sans crusts of course). Although a little long, it’s a fitting beginning to the comedy of high manners (described by Wilde himself as “a bubble of fancy”), setting the scene and settling the audience.
Oscar Wilde’s seminal story is a tangled tale thanks to the deception of two wealthy single men, John Worthing (Daniel York) and his friend Algernon Moncrief (Brendon Fernandez) who fabricate identities: John claims to have a brother Earnest in the city, but actually leads a double life as Earnest himself when John’s in the city, to escape the tiresome conventions of society and pursue potential love interests. (It is much easier to follow in person that in print). Algernon takes on the identity of ‘Earnest from the City’, in order to woo John’s ward Cecily Cardew (Gavin Yap) as John tries to court Gwendolyn Fairfax (Chua En Lai). And herein lies the point of different of this version of what is arguably Oscar Wilde’s best work, with Singapore’s W!LD RICE theatre company casting an all-male ensemble in the literary classic, and, as such, providing the text with new resonance regarding its key themes of individualism, identity and tolerance.
During what is an interesting time for Singapore, facing election during its year of 50th independence from Malaysia anniversary celebrations, W!LD RICE promotes representation of communities of stage despite their government non-recognition. And the irony is certainly not lost with this is being the final play written before Oscar Wilde’s two year imprisonment for ‘gross indecency’ with other men, given that the same law inherited from the British, sees the criminalisation of sexual acts between consenting adult males in current day Singapore (and many other Commonwealth nations). Indeed, although the play is a satire of the strict codes of Victorian behaviour, it unfortunately in this case, still has much to say about modern social issues, which is certainly the mark of a classic.
Despite a long tradition of the earnest Lady Bracknell being played in drag, the company has chosen to have all its players dressed in suits rather than have drag costumes cheapen the script or detract from the language. And it is quickly apparent that this offers no impediment to audience members’ abilities to follow along, even as the identity crisis spirals out of control. While in Act One, the female characters are denoted by touches of red to their attire, by Act Two it is clear that delineation of any kind is not required thanks to the perfectly nuanced mannerisms of the performers. As the convention protagonist Algernon Moncrieff, Brendon Fernandez is appropriately gentlemanly in demeanour and perfect annunciation. However, it really is the performers inhabiting the female roles that steal the show with their exceptional timing, Wilde’s wit resonating in their every word.
As opinionated spokesperson for the status quo, Algernon’s Aunt Augusta Bracknell (the company’s Artistic Director Ivan Heng) is bold and bash in enforcement of social discrimination while attempting to find her nephew a suitable wife. Gua Enlai, as Lady Bracknell’s daughter Gwendolen is almost sassy in her sophistication and confidence that style trumps substance, and Gavin Yap is simply wonderful as Jack’s ward Cecily, bouncing about the stage with youthful exuberance and romantic naivety. And there is an ostentatious delight to the thinly-veneered manners of the scene shared by the two in misunderstanding that they are engaged to the same Earnest. Although the gender blind casting neutralises the characters to a large degree, showing gender as a mere performance construction, the feminine dispositions of the characters are still easily conveyed through gesture, carriage and tone of voice (particularly by Hossan Leong in portrayal of Cecily’s governess Miss Prism), which makes for a thoroughly energised and entertaining performance.
Aside from anything else this “The Importance of Being Earnest” is a celebration of language, enhanced by the cast’s precise comic timing and physicality to illuminate its often long dialogue scenes. And with its line after quotable line, it is easy to see how it has endured as one of the most classic of European comedies. Like its luscious language, the production’s set (designed by Artist Director Ivan Heng) is luscious in its detail. Six triangular pillars divide the play’s three acts, with Acts One and Two sharing Japanese wood cut designs. Almost in mockery of the text’s vibrant language, Act One begins with a monochromatic black and white theme, the panels showing men in masks, in foreshadow of Cecily’s instruction that “this is no time for wearing the shallow mask of manners”. After intermission, Act Two shows that the action has moved to the countryside with images of rose bushes rooted in hearts, before Act Three is played out front of a room of mirrors (holding them up to society as well).
W!LD RICE’s provocative production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” is maddeningly good and absolutely deserving of the rapturous applause with which it was met. Having seen the 2012 show in Singapore, I can only marvel at its improved polish in Australian premiere at the Brisbane Festival. Not only have the company maintained the theatrical mastery of the original work, lauded by many as one of the greatest comedies in the English language, but their fresh take allows for appreciation of just how timeless its themes are some 120 years after its first performance. This is a near perfect theatrical experience and like all of those in the audience around me, I am thankful that W!LD RICE has been able to share their work beyond the shores of Singapore.