The Importance of Being EarnestStarring Emily Barclay, Patrick Brammall, Bob Hornery, Jane Menelaus, Geoffrey Rush, Toby Schmitz, Tony Taylor, Christie Whelan
Directed by Simon Phillips
Written by Oscar Wilde
12 November 2011 - 14 January 2012, MTC Theatre, Lawler Studio, Southbank
It has long been rumoured that as Oscar Wilde was nearing his death in a French hotel room in 1900, he glanced around at the rooms' particularly unattractive wallpaper, sighed and uttered, "Well - one of us has got to go."
Whether this exchange really occurred or was merely a romantic fabrication, it would certainly have been a befitting end for Wilde, a writer celebrated for his unwavering wit.
His most famous play, The Importance of Being Earnest, is so amusing that it has undergone endless incarnations since it was first performed in 1895. Given its reoccurrence, one might think it would be difficult for any contemporary rendition to be exceptionally impressive.
And yet, the Melbourne Theatre Company's current production of the classic is just that. It is a captivating and hilarious performance, with a strong cast headlined by none other than Hollywood luminary and Victorian Australian of the Year for 2011, Geoffrey Rush.
The Importance of Being Earnest is the story of two young gentlemen who twist the truth in order to visit the country or the city. Algernon (Brammall) pretends to visit an invalid friend named Bunbury in order to escape London and romp across the countryside. His friend "Ernest" (Schmitz), on the other hand, is actually named John in the country, where he resides with his ward Cecily (Barclay). John tells Cecily that he has a troublesome brother named Ernest who he often needs to visit in London, and while there he adopts that name himself.
These falsities become problematic when John, as Ernest, proposes to Algernon's cousin Gwendolen (Whelan) in the city, and Algernon, pretending to be John's fake brother Ernest, proposes to Cecily in the country. Both women adore their partners, mainly for the superficial reason that their name is Ernest. But when the two worlds collide and all four are together, the question is: is anyone Ernest?
Add in Gwendolen's intimidating mother Lady Bracknell (Rush), Cecily's daft teacher Miss Prism (Menelaus), the quirky Reverend Canon Chasuble (Taylor) and two butlers (both played by Hornery) and it's a plot that is totally absurd.
But that's half the fun. In fact, a commendable quality of the cast is their ability to effectively convey this ridiculousness without going too over the top.
Simon Phillips's strength as a director is clearly evident in the precise timing of line and action delivery in the play, with every moment carefully constructed down to the smallest gesture. There is plenty of thigh-slapping physical comedy, particularly in a clumsy fight scene between Algernon and John, which ends in the dramatic throwing of muffins.
This is a sentimental choice of play for Phillips, being his last production as the Melbourne Theatre Company's Artistic Director. He previously directed The Importance of Being Earnest in 1988, with the same immaculate costumes and set design as has been used for the current show. Rush, Menelaus and Hornery were also members of the 1988 cast.
The set, designed by the late Tony Tripp, is simple and yet elaborate. When the audience enters the theatre, on one side of the stage is a giant closed book bearing the play's title. As the play commences, the book is opened revealing a pop-out backdrop of the world of Victorian England. There are three backdrops inside the book, each used for different locations.
The best thing about this production is that it is simply just so fun. As the clever one-liners flow, the audience is not required to become emotionally involved, but just to have a hearty laugh and enjoy the ride.
There has also been plenty hype for the play, with all seats selling out well in advance. This could be because of a widespread desire to see Geoffrey Rush donning a full skirt and corset. Whatever the case, the enthusiasm of the Melbourne audience gives the cast plenty to feed off.
Phillips's final play as Artistic Director does justice to Wilde's script. It won't confront the world's problems, as theatre so often attempts to do, but it will make us laugh. The Importance of Being Earnest is just as the tagline for the play says: "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People".
4 and a half out of 5
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Articles Written by Marnie
Reviews written by Marnie
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