The Importance of Being Earnest – Furies Theatre and the importance of influence (Theatre Review)
Furies Theatre at The Exchange Hotel Balmain
The double is a concept that has intrigued readers and writers for many centuries, exemplified in the Dostoyevsky novel (of which he didn’t wholly approve) which is said to be a rebuttal of Gogol’s The Nose. It wasn’t until I saw the current production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest by Furies Theatre, that I saw the multiple references to The Double in Wilde’s play -no doubt one of the keys to why we love it so much. Previously unnoticed homage to Dostoyevsky exists, as well as a thinly veiled flat-out adoration of Jane Austen that I had also missed. Furies Theatre take The Importance of Being Earnest, and plonk it in a time frame that they decided would suit the play, as well as make for awesome costumes on a stage (and they’re right, by the way). Like all slight changes in perspective, we get to see an old work we know very well through fresh eyes, and I was delighted to find in this particular production, it is the influences that shine brightest.
Oscar Wilde isn’t known for his depth, or rather he’s deep in a shallow sort of way. He skims surfaces, happily providing theatre that makes you laugh (he is very funny – still) laced with moral enough to stave off the guilt of using theatre for pure entertainment. He’s very clever, even if I am tempted to accuse him of masking a creative laziness with the social disdain he would claim came first, one of those great wits (like Dorothy Parker) that had the ability to create a perfect pun and a brilliantly constructed comic aphorism, often in the same sentence. The Importance of Being Earnest (itself a glorious pun) is filled with them: “To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up,” “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing,” “I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being good all the time. That would be hypocrisy,” and so on. They barrel down the theatrical shot-gun at the audience, one after the other, always better when a great cast (as this is) delivers them. The theme of the double, that terrifying creature that can steal your life away from you, occurs both in John’s lie about his brother Earnest, as well as in the new persona’s the men have to adopt in order to be married and consequently, respectable. In fact, the double re-asserts itself time and again, in Algernon’s schemes, in the mistake Cecily and Gwendolen make of each other, and in the lost baby left at the station by Miss Prism. If one wanted to follow the trail down all the rabbit holes, they are there for a glorious night of theatre.
The double also appears in Wilde’s use of language itself, and his homage to his influences. He doubles with Dostoyevsky and with Jane Austen, just to name two of them, moving in and out of the great legacies of those two writers with so much ease it can be missed.
This production at The Exchange Hotel in Balmain by Furies Theatre is a great way to see this classic play, in a charming and easy setting. Rachel Scane has devised a wonderful set that makes the most of a tiny, intimate space in such a way that enhances the strengths of the play, while taking full advantage of the close proximity of the audience. Scane’s set is detailed, realist and yet imbued with a delicacy of touch that supports without distracting from the wonderful words around which everyone gathers in a play such as Earnest. Her set is enhanced by engagement in the scene changes, when director Chris Mckay keeps his performers in character and has them move a piece of Scane’s set to denote transition, punctuated by Scott Bradlee’s Po.Mo. Jukebox album, the scene change becomes an immersive experience rather than the affronting break plays such as this often impose on the audience. The result is a wonderful feeling of connectedness permeating the witness experience enhancing the overwhelming feeling of fun.
But Oscar Wilde is really all about the performances of those words, and this is an entire cast that not only take full advantage of the opportunity, but so obviously have a great time doing so. Emilia Stubbs Grigoriou and Krystiann Dingas play Gwendolen and Cecily respectively, hamming up their roles delightfully, playing to the antiquated notions of the feminine with wit and over-the-top caricature. It’s really the only way to play these thoroughly old-fashioned millies these days, and they do a great job delivering every line with an undercurrent of cheerful spice that threatens to turn a little venomous, but never really does. Peter Bertoni and Peter-William Jamieson carry the weight of Wilde’s words on their shoulders as John and Algernon, each embracing the delightful word play offerd. There are some lovely moments McKay places them very close to each other, reminding one of the tragic events in Wilde’s life directly after he wrote this play, but Bertoni and Jamieson play their characters with the chipper camp that serves as a superior reminder of the playwright. Jamieson particularly (though it can be argued he has the best role of the play) is very good, blessed with a sense of comic timing perfectly suited to the easy charm of Wilde’s wit. His Algernon is handsome, clever and enormous fun.
The four love-birds are beautifully supported by Emily Pollard as Lady Bracknell (her wonderful performance had me see the similarities between her character and Lady Catherine deBurgh) Amanda Maple-Brown as the hapless, yet eventually lucky Miss Prism, Brendon Taylor as the bewildered Dr Chasuble and James Stubbs-grigoriou as The butler, tying everything up neat and tidy throughout the production. The cast is all on point, all having a wonderful time and all beautifully enunciated so that we don’t miss an all important word.
The Importance of Being Earnest is a play that everyone should see at least once, and you will have to travel a long way through time to find a better production that the one currently showing at the Balmain Exchange Hotel.