Camperfied corruption

An Ideal Husband (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

July 18 – August 6

A ‘Barbie Girl’ and ‘Ice Ice Baby’ et al pre-show soundtrack immediately acquaints the audience at La Boite Theatre’s reimagining of Oscar Wilde’s social satire, “An Ideal Husband”, particular those who may be unaware of the concept behind the ‘90s aesthetics underpinning this Australian political romp. Fashion details of the era are also peppered throughout the play, with Chloe Greaves’ costume design reminding us of tiny backpacks, berets, chokers, plaid mini-skirts and alike. And with faxes, Microsoft’s Clippy and discmen, there is an authenticity that brings a comforting nostalgic familiarity to those of an appropriate vintage.

More specifically, or maybe not, the reimagining of Wilde’s drawing room comedy is set in 1996-ish, Canberra-ish, in the lead-up to the federal election. Sydney-based Arthur ‘Artie’ Whig (Will Carseldine) has been invited to the capital for his father to announce that Artie is being cut off financially; the only way to continue living entirely at his own pleasure is for him to find a job and get married. Enter Artie’s friend Mabel Lloyd (Billy Fogarty) who in response to her own matrimonial anxiety suggests they should be wed, given that her ideal husband is a homosexual she can trust.

When the two socialites attend an endangered lizard fundraiser, political dealings are revealed as we are introduced to both Artie’s friend, the Labour Member for Brisbane and Minister for the Environment Robyn Shi (Hsiao-Ling Tang) and her passionately-idealistic intern turned adviser turned romantic partner Gertrude Chiltern (Emily Burton).

Meanwhile journalist Douglas Harris (an endearing Kevin Spink) is on the hunt to validate a story tip-off and become more acquainted with Whig, until things are complicated by the appearance of extravagant and unpredictable former Prime Minister’s widow Dame Tara Markby (Christen O’Leary) and her recently returned to Australia relation Lucian Chevely (Patrick Jhanur), former lover of Whig.

Playwright Lewis Treston’s story of blackmail and corruption within the ‘complex business of politics’, is brilliant, not only through its queer makeover of the original text’s relationships, but its dip into contemplation of bigger, still relevant political ideas, including around ideas of gender and sexuality. And it is a joy to watch the work’s performers enliven the script and interact with each other’s characters through Neridah Waters’ choreography and Nigel Poulton’s movement, intimacy and fight direction.

The strong cast more than delivers on expectations. Indeed, there are no weakness amongst their pitch-perfect performances, which all display a sure sense of timing. As Shi, Tang appropriately captures the cadence of political rhetoric in her sound bite worthy speeches and responses to questions around her friendship association with mining magnate and major fundraiser donor Tina Topaz (Christen O’Leary). Carseldine conveys a charming easiness, befitting the protagonist’s leisurely lifestyle and O’Leary’s women’s brunch speech as a falling-apart former ‘first-lady’ is a joy to behold in its crescendoing hilarity. Burton, too, gives audiences a similar highlight in Gertrude’s indigent rant about the legitimacy of her school captain reign to former school colleague Chevely, who now works for Topaz.  

Things pace along, and not just through the biting Wildean wit within the dialogue of the story’s love triangle and political scandal plotlines. Under Bridget Boyle’s snappy direction, scenes almost overlap in terms of exits and entrances, which tempos things along even before Act Two’s avalanche of comings and goings and slammed doors bedroom farce antics. What elevates it beyond just these typical tropes, however, is the comedy also of its little moments, of looks and reactions, especially from Carseldine in response to the chaos of Act Two’s absurdity.

Jason Glenwright’s lighting design and Guy Webster’s compositions and sound design work together to fill the story’s world with an engaging vibrancy. Even scene changes become dynamic in choreography as comical John Howard clones coordinate setting changes. And Greaves’ creative set design staging allows for the creation of even a House of Representatives from which the audience can watch the work’s political debates first-hand. Justin Harrison’s video design also works to set the story in its ‘ish’ time and place. On screen additions set the context of, for example, flying with Ansett, and allow for an appreciated (and very funny) epilogue of what has happened to the characters after their worlds have exploded.  

Oscar Wilde’s sometimes savage witticisms flow naturally from everyone’s mouths, which gives a buoyancy to the play’s rhythm and this is balanced by the easier humour that comes from the recognisable character types of Artie’s National Party politician father and member for Dawson, whose speech is full of hyperbolic similes, and O’Leary’s Act Two appearance as the extroverted and ostentatious mining magnate Tina Topaz.

This energetic comedy of manners and morals is a wickedly funny show in its campy humour and political rompery, so much so that some lines are unfortunately lost under the resulting waves of opening night audience reaction, if laughing too much is really even a bad thing.

Photos – c/o Morgan Roberts

Earnest endurance

The Importance of Being Earnest (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

Brisbane Arts Theatre

January 22 – March 5

Brisbane Arts Theatre has begun its 2022 mainstage program with an impressive production of an ambitious classic play, “The Importance of Being Earnest”. Oscar Wilde’s famous satirical comedy of English manners tells the tale of two Victorian era idle young society gents seeking marriage through the subterfuge creation of alter egos and imaginary helpers in order to escape their social obligations. And it is in the staged stately surroundings of Algernon Moncrieff’s (Peter Van Wekhoven) flat that we meet him and his best friend Jack Worthing (Alexander Simpkins), who, as Earnest has come from the country to propose to Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen Fairfax (Emilia Povey) providing her formidable mother Lady Bracknell (Peta Townend) approves.

The light plot is immediately brought to life by the impressive interplay between Van Wekhoven as the more assured Algernon and Simpkins as the excitable Jack. The silliness that ensures between Simpkins and Povey as Gwendolen also soon establishes them as an entertaining pair, later matched only by the giddy enthusiasm of adoration between Jack’s 18-year-old ward, the heiress Cecily Cardew (Eleni Koutsoukis) and Algernon, who beats Jack back to his country estate to pose as his imaginary brother Earnest before Jack has opportunity to kill him off.

While on paper, the complication of the story’s plot can be difficult to follow, this production clarifies any potential confusion through its approach and the compartmentalisation that comes with having three distinct acts, each separated by a short interval. Indeed, this breaks what is quite a long play up enough to ensure continued engagement in its dialogue heaviness to allow for appreciation of the clever craftedness of its tangled tale. The divided stage settings of Act One’s flat and Act Two’s manor house garden also works efficiently and George Pitt’s lighting design supports things by, for example, darkening a face-of between Gwendoline and Cecily who each believe themselves to be betrothed to Earnest, and later highlighting Jack’s ultimate titular realisation as part of Wilde’s convenient tie up of the plot’s loose ends.

“The Importance of Being Earnest is a celebration of language and with so much dialogue, it can be easy for productions to lose its key lines and thus so much of its humour, however, this production’s traditional take on the material allows Wilde’s unparalleled dialogue to shine. Even at times when the preview night dialogue lapses or over-the-tops itself, this never distracts from the characterisation.

Wilde appropriately subtitled the play “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People” and as trivial matters are treated with sincere seriousness and important issues are essentially discarded, it is really all about the wit. And while the play was first staged on Valentine’s Day in 1895, only two months before Wilde’s spectacular fall from grace, Brisbane Arts Theatre shows how very funny its dialogue remains today, when delivered well.

All members of the cast work hard to make to their characters distinct. Koutsoukis captures Cecile’s youthful idealism and precocious contradictions. Cathy Stanley is appropriately prim and proper as the hapless Governess Miss Prism and her deliberate flirtations with Reverend Chasuble (Alastair Wallace) are deliciously delivered. Townend is gloriously assured as the fearsome Lady Bracknell, uttering every hilarious line straight, using pace, pause and emphasis to perfection in her overbearing Act One interrogation of Jack as a prospective suitor for Gwendoline and horror at learning of his adoption after being discovered as a baby in a handbag at Victoria Station, which results in spontaneous audience applause upon her scene exit.

Simpkins gives us a petulant Jack, frustrated with the idea of clever people in civilised life and his interaction with Van Werkhoven as Algernon is often hilarious, such as when the comedy of errors first arises upon Jack’s return to the country with calamitous news of the death of his brother Earnest, unbeknowing of Algernon appearance as such. The facial expressions of the exasperated Jack and smug Algernon in interaction during the scene keep audience eyes upon the duo even when they are an aside to other actions.

While the characters are all shallowly self-obsessed, everything they say and do is carefully measured for its effect on others and the simple approach of this production does well to highlight this, bringing out the meaning of their declarations, even if the tone sometimes ventures towards pantomime territory. Ultimately, therefore, Brisbane Arts Theatre’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” allows for appreciation of both the biting wit and observational intellect of the classic text in and of itself, but also the comfort in which it still endures in the modern world, making it an absolute delight from start to finish. 

Wilde wonder and whimsy

The Young King (Slingsby)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

July 23 – 27

Slingsby’s production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Young King” (adapted for the stage by Nicki Bloom) is a deceptively simple but lusciously layered show. That is once the acclaimed Adelaide theatre company’s show actually starts as before the audience makes it into the theatre space, things begin with an immersive entry process through the Cremorne Theatre foyer stairways and spaces, guided by the young king’s courtiers from QUT Creative Industries. As we are divided into sections of the unnamed kingdom, instructed on how to greet the young king and taken to his costumier to arts and crafts our own coronation hats, we are brought into the world of the show and its kingdom created in the short story that Wilde wrote for his children as part of his “House of Pomegranates” collection of fairy tales … even if the foyer areas and ‘corridors of secrets’ are not the most accommodating as the immersive space and there is a lot of idle time waiting around for other groups.

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It is well over 30 minutes before the coronation celebration in which we, as esteemed citizens of the fine kingdom, have been invited to partake begins as representatives from each of the groups, the fisher folk of the north, industrious denizens of the south, forest folk of the east and prospectors of the west present gifts to the king in the first of many opportunities for children’s participation in the show. Things continue with the Young King’s (Lachlan Barnett) share of his story of being born to a princess and a poor woodland man, snatched from his parents as a baby and raised by a kind goatherd in a deep forest before, the old king, nearing the end of his life, calls the boy back to the palace for revelation of his birthright.

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Treasures and privileges are laid at the young king’s feet, but result in his internal struggle about the cost of these to others. Although he has been raised in poverty, after he becomes king, he thinks only of rare and beautiful object until his attitude changes radically after he has three bad dreams resulting in a metamorphosis to recognition of the heart rendering struggle of the poor, exploited by the rich. The theme of compassion clearly resonates, drawing together the three things we are told to remember well by the courtiers… examine the secrets that are entrusted to you, remember where you have come from and look to what is inside yourself. Indeed, “The Young King” is quite lovely and richly rewarding not only from a thematic, but also an aesthetic perspective.

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The show’s magical stagecraft is whimsical in a way that befits Wilde’s luxuriously tender language, but also very beautiful and still accessible, even to younger audience members (the show is suitable for ages eight and up, through it will appeal to adults also). There is an exquisite simplicity to the captivating world created from the delightful piano score (Musician Joshua Belperio) and lighting enlivens intimate and focussed moments including through the use of shadow play and hand-held torches. Inventively detailed nooks and crannies appears as if by magic to the wonderment of the audience, making watching the enamoured faces of younger audience members one of the highlights.

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Barnett handles the multi-faced role of the 16-year-old king with finesse, making him likeable and engaging. And he is expertly assisted by Genevieve Picot who adopts an array of additional characters, without addition of costumes. While she embodies them all with unique characteristics, it is her rickety old king that is most memorable as example of her diverse talent.

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“The Young King” represents a unique theatrical event, more experience than show as audience members operate as participants rather than just spectators, not just at the coronation event and its lead up, but in exit through the stage’s enchanted forest and backstage areas. The Brisbane stop of its national tour may be quick but it should not be missed by young and young-at-heart audience members alike, who like their theatre to have a touch of magic.

Photos c/o – Darren Thomas

Windermere wit

Lady Windermere’s Fan (New Farm Nash Theatre)

The Brunswick Room, Merthyr Road Uniting Church

July 14 – August 5

dance.jpgOscar Wilde’s ‘play about a good woman’, “Lady Windermere’s Fan” is the perfect piece for a Sunday afternoon on-stage comedy… as perfect as the pink roses that the titular Mrs Windermere (Corinne Fixter) is pruning pre-show as the audience enters. It is all very gentile in manners and manner, even down to Brenda White’s well-chosen costumes, as the lady of the house entertains visitors ahead of her birthday ball that evening, proudly showing the fan that her husband (Chris Robinson) has bought her as gift.

As the plot progresses, Mrs Windamere’s friend Lord Darlington (Scott West) compliments her in poor attempt to (at least initially) disguise his romantic feelings and Mrs Duchess Carlisle (Phillipa Bowe) shares some close-to-home gossip. Unbelieving of the claim that her husband has been making repeated visits (and monetary payments) the complex Mrs Erlynne (Sally Jenkins), Mrs Windamere dismisses the claims, but sets upon investigating and ultimately confronting her husband. The story develops with revelation to the audience regarding Mrs Erlynne’s identity and a consequential reminder of how appearances can be deceptive.

As Mrs Windamere and her husband, Fixter and Robinson anchor the show with both their wonderful rapport and fiery conflict. Bowe makes for a memorable Duchess Carlisle too, animated in her Lady Bracknell type judgment, passive aggression and the gossipy suggestions which set off a chain of events. Still, as is usually the case with Wilde’s aristocratic satires, everything becomes secondary to the script and it is easy to appreciate the play’s role as the initiator of Wilde’s huge popularity as a playwright. The themes are adult in their social ridicule and intellectually explored through the contrasting symbolism of the fan of its title, which becomes as much a sign of deception as one of decorum. And the writing allows characters to engage in the most delightfully witty banter about relationships and marriage.

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“Lady Windermere’s Fan” was first performed in London in 1892 as a satire on Victorian morality and gender double-standards. Yet, it is remains relevant in its juxtaposition of high society and popular culture and human desire for scandal at the expense of others. To relocate it to a Brisbane setting seems, therefore, unnecessary and ultimately serves only to jar the work from its bubble of English manners, so maintained throughout all other aspects.

The four act play breezes through in an easy two hours with just the right amount of character and charisma, never taking itself too seriously (because ‘life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about’). Indeed, its charm serves not only to remind audiences of the masterful wit and imagination of Oscar Wilde, but also gives chance to enjoy a humour-filled couple of hours as part of New Farm Nash Theatre’s ‘Laughter is the Best Medicine’ 2017 season.

Fancy for our times

The Importance of Being Earnest (W!LD RICE)

QPAC, The Playhouse

September 11 – 13

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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.

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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.

Brisfest brightenment and enlightenment

It was difficult not to think pink in the vicinity of the CBD’s George Street when a massive marquee took over Queen’s Park as host to celebration of 2015’s Brisbane Festival launch. With Principal Partner, Treasury Casino and Hotel also lit up for the occasion, the excitement was mind-blowing (to take the festival’s tagline.)

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Although the festival is Australia’s youngest international arts festival, its growth in audience attendance and program size since it was made an annual event in 2009, affirms its role in connecting artists and audiences through attracting world class entertainment. And in his inaugural year as festival director, David Berthold is certainly bringing the world to Brisbane from September 5 – 26, first and foremost through the drawing together of four shows umbrella-ed as ‘Congo Connections, showcasing the power, politics and personality of the unique African nation. These include “Coup Fatal”, which will see Congolese Countertenor Serge Kakudji joining 12 musicians to refashion some of the greats of baroque music with pop, rock and jazz, and also “Macbeth”, a thrilling showcase of Verdi’s operatic version set in the Congo.

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The provocative programming continues with “Flexn”, a piece created by Brooklyn hip-hop pioneers of the relatively new dance from flex, which opened only months ago in New York City. Infused as it is with the unrest following the extreme circumstances in the US in aftermath of police shootings of unarmed black suspects, the piece is sure to stir as well as reflect deep resonance with our own national narrative. And to have it playing almost alongside “Beautiful One Day” is quite the coup, for this acclaimed theatrical documentary promises to be a gripping look at the death of Mulrunji Doomadgee in police custody on Palm Island and the subsequent aftermath uprisings, even more so by its inclusion of Palm Island residents (including Doomadgee’s niece).

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Then there is also “Hot Brown Honey”, a cabaret of less drama but just as much political passion, returning in an explosion of colour, culture and controversy to the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts to serve up some comedy, circus, striptease, song, dance and poetry while smashing a few stereotypes along the way.

There is similar promise of stereotype shattering in W!ld Rice’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”, as part of the festival’s Singapore Series to mark the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence. The gender-bending play, which features an all-male cast (no drag) has been a huge hit in Singapore, despite homosexuality being illegal there, and promises the joy of Wilde’s wit, with a twist.

Brisbane Festival is Brisbane’s biggest party, vibrant, lively and unique. And September 2015 promises to build upon this with events for cabaret connoisseurs, circus lovers and a music enthusiasts featuring alongside its thought-provoking and politically charged works, to ‘brighten and enlightened the world with mix of the merry and the meaty’, Berthold described it, for amongst the big subjects and serious conversations, there is also promise of some sure fun.

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The creators of “La Soiree” are returning to the Spiegeltent with “Club Swizzle”, which promises to be just as debaucherously sassy as its circus cabaret forerunner. “Thum Prints” sees beatboxing virtuous Tom Thum matching forces with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and “Symphony For Me” sees the QSO putting on a free concert based on the submitted favourite classical pieces of some of its audience members. The music program also includes an environmentally focused muliti-media collaboration between former Powderfinger frontman Bernard Fanning, four-time Aria Award winner Katie Noonan and renowned Western Australian author Tim Winton, along with around-the-world solo sailor Jessica Watson, as part of the 50th anniversary of the Australian Marine Conservation Society and also “A State of Grace” tribute to the music of Tim and Jeff Buckley, featuring a swag of acclaimed musical performers.

Brisbane audiences are sure to be tickled pink with the program, which features hundreds of artists from five continents, including a number of free events (because arts should be accessible to everyone). Although there are many ways to enjoy a festival, exhilaration comes from the connection and accumulation of its program’s parts, and in 2015, this promises to be truer than ever. With so much theatre, music, dance, circus, film and lots more, there are countless opportunities to brighten and enlighten. Tickets are on sale from June 30, so grab a program and start planning how you are going to paint the town pink this September.

PROGRAMS