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.