The Importance of Being Earnest can feel like fairy floss: sweet, yes, but when you start to pull it apart it becomes insubstantial. The play is an outright farce and this production by the State Theatre Company of South Australia emphasises the intrinsic silliness of the story. But if this is a farce, it is a farce crafted by a true genius of theatre, and the way this production steadily builds to a powerful climax shows why Oscar Wilde’s play has endured while so many comedies by his contemporaries have faded from relevance and memory.
The story is difficult to describe. Essentially, two friends (dandyish Algernon and serious John) have independently been living double lives to escape the stringent social demands of their upper-class existences. Their lies set up a complex series of misunderstandings that cascade into further necessary (and sometimes unnecessary) lies and confrontations.
What makes this play different from other mistaken identity comedies is that the situations are a logical extension of the rules the characters set for themselves. Oscar Wilde plays fair at his own game and the elan with which the characters are true to the rules even when the rules force them to depart from reality and sanity is genuinely poetic. Oscar Wilde’s famous wit is deeply cynical but just below the surface there is a deep love for the strangeness of life, and an absurdity is always pointing towards a deeper truth. When the two love-interests declare that they will not marry anyone other than an Earnest, they are simultaneously being ridiculous and touching on a sacred truth about the arbitrariness of love (and satirising the whims of a capricious lover). Characters attempt to lie but cosmic irony has decided that they are fated to unknowingly tell the truth.
Nathan O’Keefe’s Algernon is aggressively camp, contrasting with Yalin Ozucelik’s deadpan performance as John (alias Jack, also alias Earnest). I was initially uneasy to see Algernon acting so unrestrainedly silly. In early scenes he came across not as a dandy and rogue but as a hapless, shadier Bertie Wooster desperately in need of a Jeeves. However the pair bounce off each other in an effective double act and I warmed to O’Keefe’s interpretation of the character by the second act. The other cast members give highly polished performances. Nancye Hayes is intimidating as Lady Bracknell and the rest of the cast give her a lot of credibility through their reactions to her (sometimes even when she isn’t on stage). Anna Steen and Lucy Fry are wonderful as the objects of desire who ultimately form an alliance against their lovers in a combination of courtship and terrible female vengeance. If baptism is all it takes to woo these women, I can book one later this afternoon.
When watching the play I started off with unease and scepticism – the slightly goofy approach to the material didn’t quite work for me. But I was steadily wooed as the play developed itself and as the action mounted I became completely hooked. This is more than fairy floss and light entertainment, it is a highly polished production by seasoned actors and would be an excellent introduction to Oscar Wilde for those who have not experienced the writer or this play. Those who know the play will probably be divided on the interpretation in this particular production, but I was delighted by a charming play – and awed by Oscar Wilde’s enduring genius.