The story of two bachelors, determined to live life and find love on their own terms in a society that expects conformity and venerates social standing; Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is a delightful play.
Wilde created a world of sharp wit, acerbic social observations, a charming reverence for beauty and dialogue that you want to luxuriate in. I was extremely excited to see this production by Singaporean company W!ld Rice for the Brisbane Festival.
The production began with a plate of cucumber sandwiches and a string quartet (Conservatorium of Music students Liam Keneally, Johnny Van Gend, Henry Justo and Julian Sharp), which was a gentle lull into a world of sophistication masking hypocrisy.
Ivan Heng’s set and Frederick Lee’s striking costumes evoked this world, which were cleverly imagined to further concepts explored in the play. For the first act, the set consisted of six large panels/walls with black and white depictions of large figures in masquerade fancy dress. Immediately, the play is set against the backdrop of a society where people are wearing masks and playing characters. Alongside this black and white backdrop, every character was a man in a suit; each suit beautifully distinct. The occasional splash of colour, even as small as a pink buttonhole, really stood out as an expression of passion and individuality. It was an interesting choice to have Lady Bracknell, who epitomises the conformist nature of society, clothed in scarlet.
Two things kept me from personally being fully immersed in this production. The first was the all male cast. Wilde’s characters can have a distinctly stereotypical edge to them, and in the hands of men, the women can come across as caricatures. Upon reading the programme notes, I discovered that the intention behind the all male cast was to ‘break gender barriers’. This is a wonderful concept and an exciting goal but unfortunately, in this instance, I don’t think it was achieved. If the couples in the play had been same-sex, or if women had also played the roles of the men, it might have broken barriers. As it was, men were playing women. They identified as women and were treated as women by the other characters. No statement was made, except that women had missed out on the roles.
The second was the clear directorial choice to deliver dialogue directly to the audience rather than to the other actors. This was a constant reminder that we were watching theatre and made it harder to invest in the drama onstage.
These are small quibbles, however. The production overall was beautiful, and the comic timing of every actor was masterful. It can be difficult to make Wilde’s heightened dialogue feel unaffected and genuine, but W!ld Rice carried it off. The audience barely stopped laughing.
W!ld Rice’s production remained true to the spirit of The Importance of Being Earnest and captured the message that the most important thing in life is to be true to yourself, especially in the face of pressure to conform. A lovely, frivolous, earnest night of entertainment.