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. 

Lit lit

The Importance of Being Wasted (Act React)

The Lord Alfred Hotel (Petrie Terrace), May 7 – 9

Alliance Hotel (Spring Hill), May 14 – 21

Jumping Goats Bar (Margate) May 22

Act React have always looked at things a little differently, as their previous pop-culture inspired interactive theatre comedy shows have illustrated. Rather than interrogating a movie through their trademark lens, however, at this year’s Anywhere Festival, the company is turning its attention to a literary comedy of manners, only with a cocktail twist. Specifically, their take on Oscar Wilde’s, “The Importance of Being Earnest” sees a rotating roster of two cast members getting drunk each performance, making for a truly unique and very funny theatrical experience befitting the site-specific locations afforded by the core premise of The Anywhere Festival, which aims to connect audiences, locations and shows with local nooks and crannies.

The story of two late Victorian English gentlemen, respectable protagonist Jack (Simon Chugg) and charming Algernon (an engaging Daren King) bending the truth through invented associations to add some excitement to their lives is a wonderful fodder for the idea, particularly as events start to go awry plot-wise. Like a cultured “Drunk History”, the show presents the trivial comedy of serious people in a considered matter that retains its essence but amps up the humour, making it accessible even to audience members without appreciation of the original text. Indeed, while the amount of bunburying within the story brings humour in and of itself, the addition of some music, a cast song and increasingly drunken character commentary, exclamations and expletives make for a very funny experience.

On opening night these come from drinkers, an increasingly bold Jenna Murphy as Jack’s Earnest-obsessed ward Ceciliy and an often giggly Ellie Hardisty as her governess Miss Prism, Algernon’s domineering aunt, Lady Brackell and especially, in later scenes as Merriman, the butler at Jack’s Manor House in the country. Add in the farce that comes from the quick costume changes that accompany required role-swapping (especially from Damien Campagnolo in switches from the rector on Jack’s estate, Dr Chasuable and Algernon’s manservant, Lane to the imposing matriarch Lady Bracknell) and the hilarious feature of a coat rack, and the show is filled with memorable moments.

The premise allows ample opportunity for improvisation as the confusion of inebriated players needs to be redirected by each show’s sober performers (on opening night primarily, Chugg, King and Elizabeth Best as Gwendolen), and performers do well in this regard, ensuring that Wilde’s witticisms are maintained as much as possible, despite being so easy to trip over after a few drinks. Similarly, abridgment of the original play not only maintains its essential sensibility, but offers a shorter, punchier script that allows for players and audience members alike to roll with the resulting chaos.

“The Importance of Being Wasted” is a delightful experience, well-suited to its presentation in the stately surrounds of The Lord Alfred Hotel’s beautifully restored Verandah Bar, meaning that the audience can drink along with the performers, apart from their audience-instigated skols. And it is such infectious fun that you will probably find yourselves wanting to hang around post-show for another drink, or at least wanting to head home for some crumpets.

Act React’s “The Importance of Being Wasted” is a full-of-surprises and Wilde-ly entertaining experience that creates a new comic rhythm to a classic of the theatre. Under Natalie Bochenski’s direction its sense of fun suits it being a festival show, while still honouring the original text and the craft of its author amongst the controlled chaos of its celebration.

And so this was…

As John Lennon asks in his now Christmas standard, “so, this is Christmas and what have you done?” Reflection becomes par-for-the-course at the tail end of the holiday period, including of shows seen during the year passed and in what has become typical, my favourites are a little off-kilter from the perhaps usual list of big-budget showcases.

Local shows aside for a moment and 2015 allowed me opportunity to see the London productions of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and “The Book of Mormon”. I am yet to hear of anyone who has seen the Dog in the Night-Time on stage and not raved about the experience. And justifiably so; it is the best dramatic production I have ever seen, anywhere. And as for “The Book of Mormon”…. is there any feeling better than being able to tick from an in-mind list of shows you want to see. For me, this musical had been at the top of my to-see list for a number of years, replaced now by “Something Rotten” and while the show is shocking in its satire, it’s quite brilliant and definitely up there as one of my favourites.


But that is not say that Brisbane has not seen its share of great shows of all sorts, from which my favourites would be:

  1. All My Love (HIT Productions) – the story of Australia’s best-known poet and writer Henry Lawson and his relationship with fellow poet Mary Gilmore.
  2. The Confidence Man (Side Pony Productions) – a choose-your-own-adventure of the theatrical kind as audience members use smartphone to flick between the characters’ stories, tuning in on their innermost thoughts as the action unfolds.
  3. The Importance of Being Earnest (W!ld Rice) – a witty all-male telling of Oscar Wilde’s immortal play, as part of the Brisbane Festival.
  4. Candide (Opera Q) – opera at its most accessible, merging music and comedy in a colourful and energetic search for Eden.
  5. Tiptoe (Pentimento Productions) – Two timeframes unfold simultaneously on stage in this Australian psychological thriller with a twist from acclaimed playwright Sven Swenson.

With appreciation of the notion that theatre-going begets theatre-going, I am also confident, however, that 2016 will bring with it a range of shows and potential new favourites. So, as Lennon also says…. “Let’s hope it’s a good one”.

Mind blown!

I saw 15 of the 78 Brisbane Festival productions during September … not my best year (stupid Influenza B) but not a bad effort, given its Term 3 timing (#teacherlife). This leads to difficulty though in reflecting upon preferences, especially when shows can be so wildly different in type and tone, yet still be equally mind-blowing (to steal the festival’s tagline intent).

Velvet (4)

The razzle dazzle ‘70s cabaret “Velvet” featuring her highness Marcia Hines was infectiously fun, while at the other extreme, W!ld Rice’s witty all-male telling of Oscar Wilde’s immortal “The Importance of Being Earnest” offered delightful take on the classic.


Certainly, the Singapore Snapshots and Congo Connections provided many of the highlights of harrowing and happiness alike and I hope that the focus on particular nations is set to continue in future festivals in affirmation of the event’s role in connecting artists and audiences through attracting world class entertainment.

World premieres of commissioned productions like the equally intense and profound, but very different works of boxing-based “Prize Fighter” and opera/circus fusion “Il Ritorno” of course add a specialness to theatre experiences. The fact that they additionally come courtesy of Brisbane creators also fosters the type of conversations that typify festival time, when an entire city can become focussed on creativity. Rather than engendering a generic franchised feel, this year’s works have been daring and then some, making it a September not to be forgotten.


Fancy for our times

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.

earnest cheek kiss

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.)


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.


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).


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.


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.