State Theatre Company of SA. Dunstan Playhouse. 30 July 2014
The audience erupts from the theatre in a haze of happiness. A good Earnest is a delicious experience - the theatrical equivalent to the perfect cucumber sandwich. Well, maybe this one is not quite of that traditional custom. Cucumber and rocket, perhaps, since Geordie Brookman has pushed the conventions, as is his wont. He's a young director who likes to put a dash of the fresh in the classics.
Thus is this production of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ set upon a circular pedestal of richly polished red wood and enclosed by giant shower curtains which, dragged to and fro by human hand, serves as backdrops to the scenes. Ailsa Patterson is the clever designer who has produced this talking point of a set which turns the expanse of the Dunstan Playhouse's proscenium stage into a more intimate space: the drawing room with its quaintly minimalist furniture, surrounded by silvery, gossamer layers, and the country garden swathed in a wall of roses. Gavin Norris's lighting emphasises its bold aesthetic statements and while reigning large upon the eye, falls short of stealing the show.
As it should be, Oscar Wilde's script is the real star here, with some skilled assistance from the cast and with an impish eye from the director.
The play required no explanation for much of the audience. One of the challenging things about it is how well people know it and how many of its lines have such a place in popular reference that audience members are just hanging out to hear how they are delivered this time.
The action opens in a London drawing room where foppish Algernon and his visiting friend Earnest, gentlemen of class and manners, discuss the double lives they have created as escapes from the constraints of their parlour lives of gentility. One calls himself Earnest in the city and Jack in the country. The other weekends in the country for the sport of "Bunburying" whereupon he creates out-of-character adventures for himself.
These odd indulgences become both spurred and hampered by affairs of the heart.
Brookman has re-imagined some of the characters. Most pointedly and absolutely brilliantly, there is the new Gwendolyn who is not just coquettish but also dripping with innuendo and bursting with highly-corsetted lust. She has never been funnier than as portrayed here by Anna Steen who delivers the Wildean wit with wickedly well-placed emphases. "Little Cecily" who, at 18, is the product of a sheltered private education in the country, is less ingenuous in this interpretation of the play. Instead she is petulant, wilful, and knowing. Lovely young Lucy Fry hams her up with non-stop mugging and a death-defying totter in her very tight long frock.
Brookman's casting of Earnest is bold. In Yalin Ozucelik he brings an almost Groucho Marx element - dark, balding, moustachioed, an outsider in a black tail coat. Set beside the height and evidently Celtic genes of Nathan O'Keefe as Algernon, he adds another element of the ridiculous.
O'Keefe swaggers and flops, whines and connives in a perfectly-pitched over-the-top characterisation as Algie. He has Wilde down to a tee, or should one say cup of tea and plate of muffins. It is a glorious performance, an enunciational triumph.
And then there is Nancye Hayes. There's a round of applause as she enters the stage in the most eye-blastingly violent orange outfit topped by an extra-planetary eruption of ostrich feather haberdashery. Oh, it is a big and fussy frock. It would swallow a lesser actress. But Hayes, as Lady Bracknell, is all presence and composure, timing, and eloquence. She is lynchpin to the plot and conveyor of the greatest lines. She does it all with consummate expertise, the "handbag" line emerging not as an indignant exclamation but as a glorious gasp which visibly resonates through her torso. In the country scene she is not so much frocked as upholstered. The costumes are their own comic statements.
Caroline Mignone may be disadvantaged by her good looks as Miss Prism, but not by her acting. She emotes very sweetly and one rejoices for her relationship with the Reverend Chasuble. He is one of three characters played by the inimitable Rory Walker whose expressions and timing are responsible for some of the funniest moments of the production.
And an eminently amusing production it is. Brookman has delivered a proper comedy of manners, a Wilde with a wild streak. He has dared to add a smatter of shtick and some visual assaults to heighten some of the silliness. He has pushed it, but stopped short of offending Wilde purists.
And thus does The Dunstan Playhouse resound with titters, giggles, guffaws and belly laughs - and enthusiastic applause.
When: 25 Jul to 16 Aug
Where: Dunstan Playhouse