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.